The EconomistMay 18, 1968
France's cultural revolution
The weather smiled on the victors. Monday night was mild and gay as students directed traffic in the reconquered Latin Quarter. The Sorbonne, whence the police had vanished, was open to all. Soon everybody was going to start talking about France's "cultural revolution," but for the moment the atmosphere was more one of Kermesse Héroique, with overtones of the early days of the Cuban revolution. In the courtyard of the Sorbonne a band was playing jazz. In the university's entrance hall, covered with posters, a notice proclaimed "Il est défendu d'interdire" (it is forbidden to forbid"). In the lecture rooms earnest young men, exhausted and exhilarated, debated until dawn about relations between students and workers, about the place of the university in society, about culture and capitalism.
How many had they been in the streets of Paris on that extraordinary day? They were a human sea which invaded the capital from the Gare de l'Est, where schoolboys, students and professors met at 1:30 p.m. Two hours later, at the Place de la République, this huge wave met another, led by the trade unions, and the combined procession marched through the heart of Paris, across the Seine, up the Boulevard St. Michel to the place Denfert-Rochereau, the meeting place of this revolutionary fortnight. Long after the first marchers reached their destination those at the tail of the procession had not yet started; they did not arrive until after 1 o'clock.
It was the biggest march Paris had seen since the war, the youngest, the most dynamic and, outwardly at least, the most revolutionary. Red flags were flying, clenched fists were held high, the Internationale was a recurring refrain. The fierce slogans were not aimed only at ministers; President de Gaulle himself was denounced as a murderer and called upon to resign. The politicians, men like M. Mitterrand, M. Mendès-France and M. Waldeck Rochet, were lost in the crowd. There were no police in sight. The difference of mood between the generations was most apparent towards the end of the march, when many students wanted to go on to the Elysée, while communists stewards used loudspeakers to tell the crowd to disperse.
How had the face of Paris been changed so suddenly? To understand that, one must go back to Friday, May 10th, and the storming of the barricades in the Latin Quarter. The thing really began that afternoon, when older schoolboys, wanting to express their solidarity with the students, gathered in the Place Denfert-Rochereau to listen to speakers who addressed them from the statue of the Lion of Belfort. In the evening it was the turn of the students and lecturers; at first they marched rather aimlessly, but from time to time their Japanese-inspired rushes added speed to the procession, and there were moments of tension when all side streets were blocked by helmeted policemen ready for the fray. The demonstrators shouted "CRS-SS" at the Compagnies Républicaines de Securité and greeted them with the nazi salute. But once again the student stewards showed that they had the situation under control; linking hands, they acted as barriers and prevented clashes.
When the demonstrators sought to cross the Seine, they found all the bridges blocked by strong police forces. The march was then channeled by way of the Boulevard St. Germain to the Boulevard St. Michel. The choice for the students at this stage was either to disperse or occupy and hold their own districts. Once they decided on the latter course in the face of the formidable array of police that had been brought against them, the building of barricades followed naturally. The barricades sprang up like mushrooms after rain, particularly in the area around the Luxemburg gardens and the Rue Gay-Lussac. Cars and all sorts of other materials were used.
Yet, as Friday night fell, the atmosphere, though tense, was not one of battle. People living in the area--and the Latin Quarter is not very leftish--were giving food to hungry students. (Later they also poured out water to disperse gas and opened their doors to give refuge to hunted students.) Nobody could really believe that the police, if they were going to charge, would first have allowed the barricades to be erected. There were also unfinished negotiations with the authorities. On two points raised by the demonstrators--the withdrawal of troops and the reopening of the Sorbonne--there was no real difficulty. But the third demand was for the release of those arrested in earlier demonstrations. "Libérez nos camarades" had become the marchers' particular cry, a cry to which the government was to yield--but not until 24 hours later. For the time being its answer was no. The ministers concerned were in uninterrupted conference. At 2 a.m. the decision was taken to storm the barricades.
A quarter of an hour later the attack began with the kind of softening-up process that suggested a real battlefield. Gas grenades were fired at the barricades. "De Gaulle assassin" yelled their defenders through the handkerchiefs protecting their faces. The air was so thick with gas that the police had to retreat when the wind changed direction (they suffered many casualties from burns or gas). But they went forward ruthlessly, taking one barricade after another. The Red Cross was not allowed to move in to evacuate the injured, despite a dramatic appeal by Professor Monod, the Nobel Prize winner. The official count of 367 hurt was certainly too low; many students preferred to lick their wounds quietly rather than invite police attention again. By five in the morning the main battle was over; but, amid the calcinated cars, the police were still pursuing individual leftists into courtyards or even into flats, and herding battered young men into black marias (466 were arrested).
By Saturday morning order had been restored in the Latin Quarter. But for the government it was defeat in victory so obviously that M. Pompidou had to concede to virtually all the students' demands that very evening. It was too late. The outburst of popular indignation paved the way for Monday's improvised general strike and mass demonstration. By the middle of this week the student movement had gathered extraordinary momentum. Not only the Sorbonne but most other faculties in Paris and the provinces were occupied by students, who were sitting together with their professors in groups discussing the future of the universities. Divergences have already appeared among them, between the less and the more politically minded, between reformers and revolutionaries, between those concerned more about jobs and those concerned more with the structure of society. What to do about examinations is the least divisive issue. These cleavages may grow. For the moment, however, they are united by a sense of victory and a mood of unprecedented elation.