Six Days in Paris

Six Days in Paris

As hundreds of riots rock the cities and towns of France, the government imposed a curfew Tuesday and the French tried to make sense of the random attacks and acts of arson erupting all over the country. France has not seen such “civil unrest” since 1968, when students occupied the Sorbonne and spilled out into the Latin Quarter to push for university reform and protest the liberal establishment. The students launched nationwide labor strikes, and hundreds of students and police officers were hospitalized.


On Thursday, May 9, late in the afternoon, Paris seemed peaceful. From the airport bus moving along the Avenue du Maine, I saw the usual crowds of shoppers and strollers; the cafés were starting to fill up. The taxi driver raced from the Aerogare to the hotel in Montparnasse with customary Paris dash; a book open on the wheel in front of him, he insisted on an English lesson as he shot through traffic.

But the newspapers report that the university buildings of Nanterre and the Sorbonne are closed, the Latin Quarter is occupied by massive police forces, and the students are continuing their protests of the past two weeks. The national unions of students and of university teachers are standing firm on their strike order, demanding evacuation of police from the Latin Quarter, the release of imprisoned demonstrators, and the reopening of the Sorbonne.

At the publishing house of François Maspero, next morning, things were a bit upset. The police had flung a gas grenade into the firm’s bookstore off the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and several people were seriously injured. It was claimed that, along with the usual tear gas, the police were using a variety employed by the Americans in Vietnam that can inflict serious and permanent injury. Students, newspapers, Sorbonne professors expert in chemical warfare, and much of Paris seemed to believe the charge. Feeling against police brutality was running high, newspapers as staid as Le Mondecarrying page-long accounts of unprovoked attacks against students and by- standers, including foreign tourists (who, someone remarked, were especially badly beaten because, unlike the student demonstrators, they didn’t fight back).

In the Latin Quarter, police were everywhere, blocking off streets, gathered in menacing groups at squares and intersections. Everywhere also were the paniers à salade, the black Paris police wagons, in graduated sizes up to bus length. The Compagnies Republicaines de Sécurité (CRS), riot troops of the Ministry of the Interior, were out in force: heavy, black-coated, steel-helmeted, with shields on their arms, big goggles over their eyes and submachine guns slung on their shoulders, they look particularly dangerous, even sinister. Most of the police and troops stared impassively, but some of their faces glowed with hatred.

That evening, from 6:30, there was a demonstration at the Place Denfert-Rochereau in Montparnasse. At starting time, the square was filled with students and sympathizers, probably 20,000 people. The speeches were hard to hear, the amplifiers being weak. Soon a march began down the Boulevard Arago, and the walls resounded with “Liberez nos camarades!” The demonstration headed for the Santé prison, but was turned away. It moved into the Latin Quarter, where, later that evening. police blocked passage into many streets and students milled. Some theatres were closing, some restaurants putting up their iron shutters.

In the smaller streets, the students began to build barricades. Cars were dragged from the curbs and lined up across the narrow ways. The heavy iron grilles that encircle the trees were taken up and thrown into the gaps, along with street signs and anything else loose; thousands of cobblestones were torn up and heaped on top. One barricade was almost 10 feet high. Meanwhile, car radios were turned on and groups huddled close to listen. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most popular student leader, has proclaimed a peaceful occupation of the Latin Quarter. The students are to entrench themselves and remain until the police withdraw; meanwhile, student leaders are meeting with university officials, though taking the stand that they will not negotiimte until their imprisoned comrades are free. By one o’clock, the students had made themselves as comfortable as they could for the night; it seemed time to leave.

But the next morning, Saturday, the 11th, all Paris was on its ear. Shortly after 2 A.M., the police had been ordered to demolish the barricades and drivk the students out. Fighting went on all through the night. The police were better armed, of course, and used gas, fire hoses, truncheons and concussion grenades. These last are supposedly meant only to frighten, but one young student had his hand blown off. The students have the advantages usual to guerrillas and street fighters: the sympathy of the inhabitants, who sheltered them and showered the police with missiles from their windows; a better knowledge of the terrain; and a fighting spirit that, next day, had Paris excited with admiration.

The police operation was far from successful. The International Herald Tribune described the fighting this way:

 Some 500 specially trained riot police moved up from around the flowering Luxembourg Gardens. Carrying shields in one hand and truncheons in the other, they quickly overran the outer barricades, sending the outpost defenders fleeing.
 When they reached the Rue Gay-Lussac they ran into the stronghold, held by about 3.000 students, the ones who wanted to fight. The stronghold held out till dawn. It never really fell–it just got smaller….

The police first tried to weaken the resistance of the defenders by shelling them with rifle-launched tear gas grenades. When the first line of riot police tried to take the first barricade they were driven back by them own tear gas–despite masks.
 The students didn’t have any masks but they stayed somehow in that inferno. Reporters who tried to get in were driven back coughing and crying, and the radio men had to switch off. But the students held out and even counterattacked.
 The police set off flares and fired in their grenades. The students put up red flags. The police shot in concusion grenades. The students mounted the roofs and shelled them with paving stones. The police charged the barricades. The students replied with molotov cocktails. Before long most of the barricades were in flames.
 It was warfare without bullets. By 3 a.m. the police had decided they could not take the stronghold because of the fires and retreated to near the Gare du Luxembourg to patiently continue the shelling. No one in the stronghold had fled. They cursed and they shouted and sang the “Marseillaise” and the “Internationale.” It sounded like a war….
 Finally, the riot police shock troops were sent in. Flames burst out up and down the street. A water main was hit and flooded the streets with filth from the grenades. The tear gas was held down by low clouds. The students on the rooftops continued to shower the police with whatever they had left. Fire trucks got as close as they could to lay down water. By 5:30, in daylight, some 100 students were left…. Some were still on the rooftops much later yesterday morning, sleeping in the rain, silhouetted against the chimneys, waiting for the police to come.

The prefect of police quickly charged that the leaders were not students but “guerrillas” with a knowledge of barricade budding and street fighting. The charge was greeted with hoots of laughter all over Paris, and Cohn-Bendit, “Dany, le Rouge.” said: “What happened in the street is that all the young people were expressing themselves against a certain society.” But one does have to marvel at these students with their barricades, their resourceful combat tactics, their motorcycle couriers, their whistle signals, their bullhorns, their fast surprise maneuvers. Against reason, one is forced to feel that the children of France imbibe all this with their mothers’ milk.

Demonstrations had taken place all over France, sentiment was overwhelmingly with the students, and two powerful forces now felt moved to respond. The government announced withdrawal of the police from the Sorbonne and its reopening. On the other side, the big parties of the Left and the union federations decided to throw their great weight into the battle. The students greeted their new allies with mixed feelings. With elation–from then on the slogan heard everywhkre was Ouvriers et étudiants ensemble! But also with wariness, because insofar as the students have any leadership it is made up of dissident radicals–Maoists, Guevarists, Trotskyists, anarchists–and also because almost up to this instant, the students had been contemptuously dismissed by the Communists as “adventurers,” “bourgeois” and “fils à papa.” Naturally, they didn’t like being called “papa’s boys,” an epithet that in any case seemed particularly inappropriate at the moment. And more deeply, the students regard the big Left parties as almost part of the Establishment, have little confidence that these parties can ever change society, and are repelled by what they know of Communist rule in Russia and Eastern Europe. Dany Cohn-Bendit calls the Communists “Stalinist creeps.”

But now, all over Paris, placards on the newspaper kiosks proclaimed a general strike and monster demonstration for Monday. Leaflets were passed out, a few skirmishes took place, the weekend passed in an atmosphere of expectancy. Paris was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the students; polls showed that they had the backing of four persons out of five. Not that the sentiment was by any means universal; in the bar of the Pont Royal, for instance, I overheard a haughty, well-dressed woman: “Yes, of course, they can go and burn our cars in the Latin Quarter. And what can we do to them in return? They don’t even own anything we can destroy!”

But Monday morning showed how many there were who would not have applauded the indignant and militant lady. The Métro was running, but the ticket seller and ticket taker waved me through. Not as many trains as usual, but that day everyone rode free, courtesy of the subway workers of Paris. And at the Place de la République where the demonstration was to gather, it was almost impossible well before the appointed hour to force one’s way to the center of the square, where a view from the top of a construction shanty showed a human sea, banners waving, red flags flying, and as far as the eye could see down three principal boulevards, masses of demonstrators trying to push forward into the huge square.

The march to the Left Bank began. At the Place du Chatelet, just before the Seine, the demonstration moved massively, forty abreast. It seemed that all of Paris had turned out, not just to watch but to cheer. At every square and along the line of march, the Internationale was sung–in assured accents by the heavy battalions of labor; more fumblingIy by the masses of students, many grouped around bits of paper bearing the words. But before the day ended everyone knew the words.

Slogans became increasingly radical; not just for the liberation of the imprisoned demonstrators, not just for unity of workers and students and for a free university, but now also for an end to the Fifth Republic. “Power is on the fun; let it fall!” “Ten years, that’s enough!,” and, very rhythmically, “La Cinquième au clou, La Sixième, c’est nous!” The movement which began over educational issues now wanted to send the Fifth Republic to the hock shop and take its place as the Sixth. A lilting chant, “Adieu, de Gaulle,”, sung by one contingent to the accompaniment of hundreds of waving handkerchiefs, was very popular with the crowds. Placards proclaimed that the Algerian disorders of May 13, 1958, had brought de Gaulle to power; but that the struggle of the students on the barricades, May 13, 1968, signaled his end. “Bon anniversaire, mon General,” the marchers shouted. And a group of Left officials, proclaiming slogans for the march from a balcony, heard in reply from the marchers below: “Bureaucrates, dam la rue!

There was a spirit of rebellion that few had known existed. As one Parisian said to me, “I didn’t realize that everyone else was feeling this way.”

Coming off the Pont Saint-Michel, into the Place Saint-Michel, the crowd watched enthralled while a youngster with a red flag tried to shinny up a flagpole. At first he made good progress with the aid of a traffic sign clamped to the pole, but beyond that point he would gain a few feet and then fall back to the accompaniment of cries and groans. At last his outstretched finger tips catch the tri-color, which he flings to the street. A roar goes up from the demonstration, and the man beside me says, “Treason!”–with a delighted grin.

I had an appointment at La Boule D’Or in the Place Saint-Michel, and waited at a table in front, with two elderly, well-dressed gentlemen, wondering what they thought. When the waiter arrives, it becomes clear that I am a foreigner, an American. A short silence, and then one of my table mates points to the square and bids me take a good look: “La France, c’est ça! No one can meddle with our liberties, not even de Gaulle.” My own sympathies made clear, there are shouts of elation, many toasts to liberté, etc.

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?”

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 placeà 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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