The Economist     May 11, 1968

Paris burns

The carcass of a car or something was burning on the corner of the Boulevard St. Michel and Boulevard Montparnasse. It was 2 o'clock on Wednesday morning. The fire brigade rushing to the spot met a long convoy of black lorries filled with helmeted police armed with shields and long riot truncheons. Moving towards the corner of Raspail, the convoy was overtaken by screaming ambulances. A major drama had just been avoided: the police had thrown tear gas bombs into a cafe that was then closed. The Red Cross had to break in to save people from asphyxiation.

Yet this scene of night violence was not typical of Tuesday, which, compared with its bloody predecessor, was relatively quiet. Its main feature was a long march across Paris by some 25,000 students. Prevented by vast numbers of police from entering their own district, the Latin Quarter, which looked like a besieged fortress, they trekked for hours through the capital, chanting slogans, marching up the Champs-Elysées and then back to the left bank. There seemed to be a tacit agreement between the organizers, the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France, and the police to avoid clashes. Only towards midnight, when the students tried to enter their district, did fights flare up and the atmosphere resemble that of the day before.

Bloody Monday, May 6th, was quite a day. It witnessed the most violent demonstrations the Latin Quarter has known, at least since the war. The government hoped to deal with a handful of extremists. It had to cope with 10,000 students, on this occasion determined not to yield. Though the police were out in impressive numbers and armed to the teeth, they did not have it all their own way. Some of the students had helmets and sticks. Cobblestones answered tear gas. From 3 p.m. to well into the night it was a permanent struggle with skirmishes, battles and tactical retreats. Streets were unpaved to provide ammunition, cars overturned as improvised barricades. Boulevard St. Germain between the Deux Magots and Odéon was no place for strolling tourists. The figures speak for themselves. The police claimed 345 casualties in their ranks. At least 500 demonstrators were wounded and 422 arrested.

Demonstrations are usually much more violent in Paris than in London and, probably, than in any other west European town. The reason seems to be that violence breeds violence. France has shown once again that it has a domestic force de frappe of the first order.

With its Gardes Mobiles and its Compagnies Républicaines de Securité (the initials allow the demonstrators to chant the slogan CRS-SS) France has the troops needed for a civil war and its various regimes have often used them ruthlessly. The classical questions about who started the violence and who was within the law are in France only a part of it. The police did not enter the Sorbonne on May 3 until they were called for, and on Monday they were handling an unauthorised demonstration. But once French policemen get going, they are not particularly tender. The many eyewitness reports of passers-by beaten up, people sitting in cafes getting a taste of truncheons and isolated demonstrators thumped to the ground testify to that.

The efficiency and ruthlessness of repression has as its counterpart, in the long run, an improvement in the techniques of street fighting. The angry young men who went out on Monday were spoiling for a fight.

But it was on the preceding Friday that the trouble had really started. For reasons that are still not quite clear the rector, M. Jean Roche, decided on the historically unprecedented step of calling the police into the Sorbonne. The government complied, probably very willingly, convinced as it was that unrest among students was limited to small groups, to the so-called enragés of Nanterre--the new faculty of arts built in a slum suburb of Paris.

It must have thought that a show of force would solve the problem amid the applause of the populace and the indifference of the rest of the student body. The calculation proved entirely wrong. The closing of the Sorbonne, the brutality of the repression, the stiff sentences passed against demonstrators had the opposite effect. The movement gathered momentum, it spread to the provinces, attracted the support of a number of lecturers and professors.

It is easy to see why the government miscalculated. The revolutionaries of Nanterre are undoubtedly a minority. The various groups--the followers of Mao and of Che Guevara, the admirers of Trotsky and the less precise seekers after some kind of socialist society--are deeply divided among themselves. But the government did not grasp that their mood of rebellion, their rejection of the established order, correspond to the mood of a wider student community.

Swollen by the population bulge the French universities are now undergoing a revolution of numbers. There are now some 600,000 students, more than twice as many as at the beginning of the 1960s. But changes in methods, syllabuses and approach have not kept pace with numbers. The harshest critics describe the universities as factories for misfits. Everybody agrees that they are no longer suited to the needs of the moment.

Many students fall by the wayside. Even those who get a degree are not sure of a job. Students do not worry only about being squeezed lemons at 40, they worry about their immediate prospects. It is not surprising that the movements of protest started among art students. It is not just that students in sociology or philosophy are more concerned with the meaning of society; it is among them that the future unemployed are more likely to be found.

Obviously many of today's rebels will be absorbed tomorrow and be concerned only with climbing into the establishment or getting their slices of affluence. But they are still young enough to listen with sympathy to slogans about the overthrow of the established society. The truncheon did the rest.

The government was not alone in misjudging the situation. The communist party made the same mistake. It went on vituperating against tiny ultra-leftist "grouplets" when its own young supporters, or ex-supporters, were already flocking to mass demonstrations. It is here that the French case adds a twist to the international analysis of student unrest. It was generally assumed that whereas students in Prague or Warsaw fight against a political order--against the remnants of stalinism--students in western Europe or America rebel against a society, that their revolt is the other side of the coin of political consensus. With a Republican indistinguishable from a Democrat in America--the argument ran--with one Harold resembling another in Britain, with Italy governed by a centre-left and the communists tempted to join), with a coalition ruling in Bonn, the protesters have no alternative. But France was seen as the exception to this rule. Here there was a gaullist government and a hostile opposition, including the communists.

It is significant that the rebels of Nanterre have treated the communists as part of the establishment, part of the consensus; and the communist party did its best, at first, to justify this judgement. Like the government, it was overtaken by events and, to its discomfort, overtaken on its left.

By midweek, after yet another peaceful march on Wednesday night, there were some signs of appeasement. The politicians had at last managed to grasp the importance of what had happened. General de Gaulle said something vague about the need for order and the need for change. The national assembly discussed the subject in a special session. Naturally students alone cannot change society. They cannot even reform the system of higher education. But they can act as a spur or an eye-opener. And Paris was awakened this week.

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