Six Days in Paris | The Nation


Six Days in Paris

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Further along Saint-Michel, the demonstrators quieted one another, and the march moved in dead silence past the Sorbonne. Soon the slogans and the singing began again. It was now almost eight o'clock and the march went on. At the Place Denfert-Rochereau where the demonstration was to terminate, there was some confusion. The marchers couId not fit into the square--ten such squares would not have held them--and the loudspeakers of the CGT (the principal trade union federation, controlled by the Communists) were telling everyone to go home. Bands of students raced to the cars protesting vehemently, demanding the picrophones, insisting that the demonstration continue, perhaps in the Champ de Mars, shouting that they had been betrayed: "Why did we come out into the streets, just to go home?"

Daniel Singer's on-the-scene reports of the events of May from The Economist (Singer was later to be The Nation's Europe correspondent for two decades) can be found in the articles archive at the website of The Daniel Singer Millennium Prize Foundation.

About the Author

Harry Braverman
Harry Braverman, director of Monthly Review Press, was on a European publishing trip in May 1968 when the upheaval...

That evening, the demonstration in the Champ de Mars was small, but with the police withdrawn from the Latin Quarter, the students moved in, and so began the Occupation of the Sorbonne. The scene was unforgettable. The statue of Auguste Comte wore a flowing red necktie, and in the inner court Zola and Pasteur brandished red flags. The walls of the court were lined with literature tables stocked by all the radical groups, and the buildings were covered with placards, hundreds of them: slogans, manifestoes, poetry, announcements of meetings--one of them to take place "à salle Lenine." A grand piano had been dragged out, and jazz alternated with Mozart and Chopin, one player succeeding another. The big courtyard was jammed, as were the nearby streets, squares, the university corridors, with people discussing in groups--and not just students, because the occupiers of the Sorbonne demonstratively threw open the doors to the workers, to the people from the neighborhood, and many came--to see the inside of the Sorbonne for the first time, to talk, to take part in the meetings.

In the corridors and meeting halls the "Smoking Forbidden" signs were scribbled over (everyone was smoking furiously) : "It is Forbidden to Forbid." The dim corridors and gloomy amphitheatres were adorned with bright water colors that clashed with the pompous neo-classical decor, but were nonetheless cheering to the eye. In one meeting hall, jammed to its limit with students and a sprinkling of professors, the discussion was impassioned, eloquent, but apparently fumbling and inconclusive, as the students tried to come to some decision on what to do about the year-end examinations. They were clearly in no state to sit for them, and besides they oppose the rigorous and arbitrary system of sudden-death examinations; but they were also trying to be conscientious and didn't want to give an impression of shirking their academic duties. There seemed to be as many opinions as speakers, some getting a hand, some laughter, some groans. Everything was under the control of the students themselves; a student presidium at the head table conferred often on procedure, but just as often was swept into the debate. The professors listened with apparent sympathy and intervened little. In one meeting a Nobel laureate in biology was interrupted by a comrade student--unheard of!--but he listened.

Next day, there was time to stroll around Paris, and to browse in the bookstores, where the most prominently displayed volumes are those which, over the past few years, have surely had a great deal to do with the creation of the mood that burst out in the streets: Guevara, Castro and Camilo Torres; Jalée and Nizan; Trotsky and Mao; Marcuse and C. Wright Mills. And Marx everywhere, especially Marx, because it is also his anniversary, the 150th of his birth, and a colloquy organized by UNESCO is going on in Paris to mark the occasion. There is time also to read the two numbers of a special student paper, Action. The featured article of the second number is headed "Les Enfants de Marx and du 13 Mai," and it ends: "The barricades of the Latin Quarter celebrate, in a worthy manner the 150th anniversary of Marx and the tenth anniversary of May 13." The paper contains news of the struggles, articles discussing educational changes desired by the students, and a piece by a graduate sociologist-urbanist about the kinds of jobs open to him: making door-to-door visits "like a salesman or a parson" in foolish surveys, or as an "industrial sociologist," engaged to figure out how to keep the workers in line. "Every occupation is evidently in the end another way of participating in repression. . . . A sociologist is no different from a flic.

And on its back page Le Journal de Dimanche ran two fascinating interviews in which students tried to make clear what the revolt was all about. In the first, a student of law and sociology, his father a Métro engineer, tells how he was drawn into the revolt by the invasion of the Sorbonne by a police column on May 3, and explains student discontent as based on the limited number of professional opportunities for graduates. The future for students, he says, is dark; and he quotes from memory the opening words of Paul Nizan's popular Aden, Arabie. "I was twenty. I will let no one say it is the best time of life." The interviewer probes further, and the student readily broadens the issues: he is against the society of "consumers" and for a society of "participants," he is against (and here he uses the title of one of Jalée's books) "the pillage of the Third World." "Both in the West and in the Soviet Union, we live in a class-dominated society, and violence appears to be the sole means for effecting a radical change."

The other student (of political science, the son of an official) also runs rapidly through the reforms he would like to see in the university, and then, asked to say what in general is wrong, answers flatly: "The political order. The Fifth Republic doesn't satisfy us. Unhappily, at the moment, there is no political formation on the Left that scems to us capable of replacing this regime for the better. The students have achieved consciousness in advance of others. There is, within the university, an extraordinary flow of ideas which is developing amid a certain confusion but which is extremely important and useful.... But this movement should not be exclusively student. It should take its place within a revolutionary workers' movement. Unhappily, the Western Communist parties and the unions have given up all idea of the class struggle." What sort of society does he want? "Very simple, I am for a Socialist democracy," free of bureaucratism of the kind instituted by Stalinism. "That's why I think at the moment the Cuban regime and, lately, that of Czechoslovakia accord best with my ideas of the ideal society, which is not to say that they should be imitated in everything."

I had a few more business visits. Jérome Lindun of Les Editions de Minuit tells me that his house sold 1,000 copies of a Marcuse book that morning. I lunched with an intellectual of the independent Left, in the company of an Algerian student and a German student who was apparently reproaching himself for having left the barricades he helped build on Friday night before the fighting broke out. My host, pointing to me, tells him: "You see, he also thought nothing more was going to happen that night."

On Wednesday morning, it was time to leave the children of Marx and of the 13th of May, who had filled the boulevards with such attractive energy, vivacity and intelligence. All the taxis were on strike, no English lesson in a speeding cab; instead I lugged my baggage to the Aerogare. And the last thing I heard was that 2,000 workers had occupied the aircraft plant of Sud-Aviation at Nantes, had welded the gates shut, and were holding prisoner the manager and his executives.

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