Eyewitness to Paris in May '68

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Is France Bored? Thirty Years Later

by Jim Auman

Paris:- Sunday, 3. May 1998:- An article entitled: "La France s'ennuie?" - Is France bored? - appeared in the newspaper Le Monde during the month of March 1968. I mention this because some people think that the following months were a reaction to this article.

Around the same time, a group of students at a satellite university of the Sorbonne located in the suburb of Nanterre were bored. And restless. Led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit - nicknamed Danny the Red, not because of his politics which were leftist, but because of his red hair. Incidentally, he was from Germany and today is a leader in Germany's Green Party.

Around the beginning of May, Danny and his group arrived in Paris. They were joined by the students of L'Ecole Normale Supérieure who were followers of Mao Tse Tung. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was going full blast in China, so Mao and his politics were the fashion in Paris.

For the start of the strike, I have to go by vague memories and hearsay. There was a protest in the courtyard of the Sorbonne. The school's director called in the police to have the students removed. This fed their anger.

Several days later, the first night of the barricades took place. They tore up the streets to create the barricades, along with whatever else was available - trees, benches and sidewalks. An interesting feature of thequartier latin doorway student's disdain of modern technology was their use of pneumatic jackhammers to rip up the streets.

The CRS - les Compagnies Républicaines de la Sécurité - was called out to attack the students. The CRS is a remnant of the National Guard which used to put down uprisings during Victor Hugo's time. The CRS is affectionately known as Cons, Racists et Salauds - or Jerks, Racists and Bastards. They are a combination of National Guard, State Police and Marines and have a reputation for unparalleled viciousness. They go to the riot scene in vans called Black Maria's with bars on the windows. The French say the bars are to keep the CRS safely inside.

Paris was ecstatic after the first riot. People started talking of 'Journées' - referring to the days, or 'journée,' during the Revolution when a great event took place.

Until then, Parisians thought the students were only interested in fun and games - how much fun is it to have your head bashed in and your lungs filled with tear gas? But once the Parisians saw that they were 'sérieux,' Parisians started coming to their side - apologies to Les Miz.

Strikes started to occur and what Paris does, so does the rest of France. Soon the entire country was on strike.

Then came the demonstrations in the streets during the evening. Long lines of protesters - at first students, but later, others joined in - marched through the streets with torches, banners and placards. The chants, as I remember them, were not very original. The most popular one was: "SS, CRS - SS, CRS" Which meant, CRS equals the Nazi's SS.

I was staying in a little street that fed into Allée Adrienne Lecouvreur which bordersdanny on TV in 68 the Champ de Mars. The apartment building was about 300 metres from the base of the Eiffel Tower. One night there was a demonstration which passed in front of the Ecole Militaire which is at the other end of the Champ de Mars, about a kilometre away.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit in March 1968 - F2 photo.

Even at that distance I could feel the ground shake from the stamping feet of the protesters and hear the dull roar of their chants. The flames of their torches illuminated the Ecole Militaire.

The next morning, as I was going out, the concierge stopped me and gave me her opinion of last night's events. I kept thinking: "Don't tell me, tell them," but she was probably hiding under the bed or down in the cellar. Couldn't blame her. Now, as I read about Zola defending Dreyfus and the wrath of the mob, I understand his courage a lot more.

My girlfriend's landlady was even more opinionated. She lived in the 16th arrondissement, descended from old money, was called Baroness de Blah-Blah - I forget her name; her ancestors supposedly fought with Lafayette during the American Revolution - and was livid about the strikes.

She kept asking: "Où est De Gaulle? Quand fera-t-il écraser ces imbéciles?" 'Where is De Gaulle? When is he going to have these idiots crushed?' Good question.

Where was De Gaulle? It turns out he was in Romania lecturing students and establishing even closer diplomatic ties. His advisors finally convinced him to come home.

The feeling in Paris was that De Gaulle really didn't think these events were very important and they would go away by themselves. After returning, he gave a speech in which he said, "La réforme, oui. Le chienlit, non" - 'reform yes' - literally - "shit in the bed" or, a botched mess, no.'

This really inspired the students. The next night they were demonstrating with a new slogan: "Chienlit, c'est lui." 'He's the botched mess,' referring to De Gaulle. They also made mockups of him looking like a Punch and Judy character which they carried during the demonstrations.

The strikes spread quickly and everywhere. At the time I was receiving the GI Bill of about $160 a month. It was mailed around the beginning of the month. But the French postal service had just gone on strike, so the check was in the mail that might never be delivered. And even if it had arrived, I couldn't cash it because all the banks were closed and on strike.

The school that I was attending let us borrow money, so we were living on 10 francs a day - one franc was worth about 20 cents. It wasn't quite as bad as it sounds. A popular travel book at that time was Arthur Frommer's 'Europe on $5.00 a Day.' It really was possible to do it on that, but it took some planning.

Paris on 10 francs a day was a challenge. I didn't have to worry about lodging, so I could spend the money on food. But life on 10 francs a day looked different. The cheap two franc bottle of wine at the nearby épicerie was a real luxury. The goodies - about three francs each - in the window of the pâtisserie next door represented a choice: dinner or them.

Most of the time I had dinner at a restaurant called the 'Self Service' on the boulevard Saint-Michel; and there was another one on Saint Germain-des-Prés, where a complete meal cost about five to seven francs.

Outside the restaurant on the boulevard Saint-Michel was a 'Croque Monsieur' stand - hot ham and cheese sandwich: two francs. To call it a stand was stretching the term. The counters were narrow wooden tables arranged to form an 'L.' The end of one table was placed against some concrete stairs. The second table was placed at a right angle to the first one and the far end was up against a building. The roof was a piece of canvas. The grill was fed by bottled gas. Walls? No walls. The only heat came from the grill. Ambiance? The young mademoiselle who ran the place was friendly and Paris was our dining room.

As the days and the strike went on, the tear gas accumulated. Sometimes, to get to the restaurant, I went through back alleys that were old when Quasimodo and Esmeralda were scandalizing the town. The students congregated in these back alleys and the CRS attacked them, but commenced with a volley of tear gas. Since no wind reached the alleys, the gas did not dissipate. Also, the walls seemed to absorb the gas and released it ever so slowly.

There was the Drugstore - now gone - at Saint Germain-des Prés in the heart of the Latin Quarter and a restaurant on the second floor. Sometimes the diners had the treat of dinner plus the latest riot - 'l'émeute du jour' - below in the street. On one occasion, the CRS fired tear gas into the restaurant and ran upstairs to beat up the diners.

With all the rioting and beating going on, it would seem that the fatalities would equal the battle of Verdun. But there was only one victim, and here is where the Parisian mentalitytelerama fnac 'pave' is shown so clearly. A student in the town of Lyon was chased by the CRS. In trying to escape, he fell into a canal - the events are not clear as to what really happened - but he drowned. Was Paris outraged? If it didn't happen in Paris, it was of no concern. But if he had drowned in Paris, the city might still be burning.

Promo material for book and audio-CD set from fnac.

A tactic that the CRS used to disrupt potential strike routes was to send their vans to an intersection, jump out of the vans, chase everybody for a block or so and then set up their own barricades to disrupt traffic, pedestrians and potential strike routes. The métro and bus service had long since been on strike.

One evening, as I was coming from the place de Trocadéro to cross le Pont d'Iéna to go home, the bridge was blocked by the CRS on both sides of the river. There was a little foot bridge - the Passerelle Debilly - a little bit upstream so I went there to see if it were blocked. Nope, nobody guarding it.

I was the only person on the bridge, which should have made me suspicious. Nobody was behind me, but nobody was coming in my direction either. The bridge was raised a bit above street level on both sides of the Seine; to get onto the bridge you had to climb a short flight of stairs. Halfway across the Seine, I saw a group of people on the other side. But nobody was moving.

A few steps further and their lack of movement became clear. The CRS was blocking the entrance on the other side. I didn't feel like turning back - the other end was still unguarded - so I kept on walking. About 15 CRS troopers were standing in front of the steps. Surrounding the troopers were 50 to 60 people.

Nobody was saying anything. Except me. I walked up behind the nearest trooper, said in my best French, "Excusez-moi, s'il vous plaît." The trooper was a bit startled, but he moved politely out of my way; I thanked him and disappeared into the crowd.

A final comment about the CRS. One of the teachers at the school looked out his window to see a column of CRS troopers marching down the street, clearing everyone in its path. The teacher taught classic literature, including Latin. Upon seeing the advancing column holding their shields and the way they were swinging their clubs, he saw Caesar's troops brought back to life wearing the dark blue of the CRS.

The merry month of May was becoming less and less merry. Nobody knew when the strike was going to end. All transportation in and out of France had stopped and even if there were anything available, I was broke - this occurred during the years B.C - Before Credit cards. There was always the possibility of hitch-hiking out of France to another country, but no money once I got there.

Various feelings tugged at me. I knew I was in the middle of something important, but it was for France. I was an outsider. My French was rather limited, so I really couldn't take part in the debates or understand what was going on. From what I could understand, a lot of French people were equally as confused.

But a few suggested that the strike would not go beyond early June. Vacations started then, and how could you go on vacation with no money, no gasoline, no public transportation and no place to go to?

On the other hand, it seemed that the government had abandoned its responsibilities and let the students run the show. In addition, there were rumors that the army had encircled Paris and was getting ready to attack.

"Où est De Gaulle?" He had returned once again and gave another speech. This time he convinced the French that he meant business. In return, his supporters staged their own demonstrations to show their support for him.

In revenge, the student had their own demonstrations on the boulevard Saint-Michel. I went there the next day because I heard the damage had been extensive like it had been bombed. Cars had been burned and their carcasses littered the street. And all the trees had been cut down.

From the intersection of Saint-Michel and Saint Germain-des-Prés going up the hill towards Montparnasse all the trees were gone. Only their stumps remained. Yet the buildings on either side of the street were untouched. Maybe one in a hundred had a broken or cracked window. A war took place in the streets but the stores and shops, symbols of the bourgeoisie, were intact.

The strike was over and life returned to normal in a few days. I left Paris in early June and have not been back since.


The destruction on the boulevard Saint-Michel stayed with me for a long time.

Also, there were other things in my life which I blamed on Parisnouvelle obs may 68 and France. A few years ago my wife and her niece dragged me to see the show 'Les Misérables.'

A few days later I began to read the abridged version of the book. A few months later, I read the entire thing. Then one day I said that I was going to read it in French. And I did. All 1500-plus pages. Now I am finishing up a BA in French and plan to return to France some day. Maybe as a graduation present.

Recent title of 'Le Nouvel Observateur,' for May '68.

If the events of 30 years ago are unclear, their results are also unclear. Some have said that 1968 was the year that the twentieth century finally arrived in France. For all of the reforms that were put in place, some have had good effects, others are debatable. Others were put in place in name only.

Even though I have not gone back to Paris, a part of me is still there. Maybe I will meet myself on a Parisian street some day. A poem by Guillaume Apollinaire sums it up:

Jim Auman©1998
Le Pont Mirabeau
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine Et nos amours Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne La joie venait toujours après la peineVienne la nuit sonne l'heureLes jours s'en vont je demeureLes mains dans les mains restons face à faceTandis que sousLe pont de nos bras passeDes éternels regards l'onde si lasseVienne la nuit sonne l'heureLes jours s'en vont je demeureL'amour s'en va comme cette eau couranteL'amour s'en vaComme la vie est lenteEt comme l'Espérance est violonteVienne la nuit sonne l'heureLes jours s'en vont je demeurePassent les jours et passent les semainesNi temps passéNi les amours reviennentSous le pont Mirabeau coule la SeineVienne la nuit sonne l'heureLes jours s'en vont je demeure
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