Paris May 1968

The Night of the Barricades

Source: Le Monde, May 12-13, 1968;
Translated: for 2008 by Mitchell Abidor.

Late Saturday morning M. Maurice Grimaud, police prefect, provided a balance sheet of the tragic night in the Latin Quarter: 367 injured were counted in the hospitals, 251 of whom were members of the forces of order, and 102 students. Of the 367 injured 54 were hospitalized, among whom four students and 18 policemen were in serious condition.

As for arrests, the number has reached 461, of whom 60 were foreigners. The police prefect adds that 63 of the arrested will be brought before judges: 26 students, 3 high-schoolers, and the rest – 34 individuals – were not students.

The material damages were important: 60 cars totally burned, 128 others seriously damaged.

High-Schoolers and University Students at the Lion de Belfort

4:30 pm Friday the high-schoolers assemble at the Gobelins metro station at the call of the “High School Action Committees,” which had already organized strikes and marches in Paris and the suburbs that morning and the day before.

5:00 pm 5,000 high-schoolers take the Boulevard Arago and march towards the Place Denfert-Rochereau. They occupy the entire roadway of this boulevard and the police detour the traffic. They are students of the second cycle (the third and fourth years) of most of the high schools of Paris and the suburbs. A large proportion of young girls is noted. The principals of several high schools, among them Turgot, closed the doors of their establishments in order to hold back the students of the first cycle.

A relaxed atmosphere.

Closely controlled by their own marshals, who have portable loudspeakers, the high-schoolers calmly advance while chanting: “Free our comrades,” “Fouchet Assassin.” High school teachers can be seen in the cortege. As several of them said to us: “Among our students there was a generous outburst of solidarity for the arrested students. This anarchist movement worries us, but if we’re not at their side they’ll have no consideration for us.”

5:30 pm. The cortege reaches the Place Denfert-Rochereau. There too the traffic was detoured. Empty of any cars, the plaza and the boulevards that meet there are entirely at the disposal of the demonstrators.

The leaders, atop the monument of the Lion of Belfort in the middle of the plaza, harangue their comrades with a mike. The weather is beautiful, the thousands of high-schoolers are seated in the street, the atmosphere is relaxed and even joyous.

The high-schoolers have thus reached the meeting place an hour before that fixed for the university student’s meeting, and the orators, loudly applauded, stress the solidarity of the high-schoolers with the college students. They then recall the demands proper to their movement, the “High-School Action Committees,” that were formed little by little in most of the boy’s and girl’s high schools of Paris since the beginning of the September 1967 school year: recognition of these committees by the administration, freedom of action within the high schools, participation by the high-schoolers in the life of their establishments. The students of the “High School Action Committees” strongly denounce the selective character of the Fouchet education reforms. Teachers, hoisted onto the Lion, say the same thing. But once these themes are exhausted a certain lack of focus is noted. The mike is passed to a militant of the “Federation of Revolutionary Students.” “Shut up, you politician.” His calls for revolution alongside the workers are booed. “Shut up, you politician,” the crowd screams. “Do you want us to allow the representatives of the political parties to speak?” one of the leaders of the Committees asks. “No!” the demonstrators shout, still calmly seated on the ground.

6:30 pm. The first corteges of students and professors arrive at the Place Denfert-Rochereau. The first to arrive, their banners at the lead, are the students from the school of Arts Decoratifs and the medical school. The arrival of the latter is noted because these “doctors” had not joined the preceding demonstrations. The mike passes into the hands of the organizers of the demonstration: The Union Nationale des Etudiants de France (UNEF – National Union of French Students) and Syndicat National de l’enseignement supérieur (SNESup the National Union of Higher Education). A long debate ensues, often inaudible to the increasingly numerous demonstrators, concerning the route the demonstration should follow. “We should go to the Saint-Antoine Hospital to ask if there have been any dead among the demonstrators of the previous days.” “To the ORTF [national radio and television],” others say, “to denounce the lying reports.” “Let’s go in small groups to the working class neighborhoods,” suggested another orator. It is finally decided that the cortege will first pass in front of the Santé prison – right nearby – then they will go to the ORTF, via the ministry of Justice.

Sixty Barricades

7:30 pm. a cortege estimated to be more than 10,000 strong forms and takes the Boulevard Arago with the intention of gathering in front of Santé prison where, the demonstrators think, those whose liberation they are calling for are imprisoned; in fact, they’re at Fresnes. A very large security force surrounds the prison and by its presence prevents the assembly called for for this spot. The crowd, which continues its advance, chants: “Liberty, liberty,” while arms reach out and applaud from behind the barred windows. Some stones are thrown in the direction of the CRS, who don’t react.

8:00 pm. Shoulder to shoulder, students, teachers, high-schoolers take the Rue Monge in order to reach the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Other young people mix in with the cortege that is estimated at this point to be more that 20,000 people strong. The marshals of the UNEF closely guard the flanks of the demonstrators and form a barrier when the mass passes before the helmeted and shield bearing detachments. In this way any incidents are avoided. It’s true that on their side the police maintain their calm. They don’t react to the invectives thrown at them and strictly apply the orders they were given not to react to any provocation.

8:20 pm. The young people in helmets in the first rank of the demonstrators arrive at the intersection of the Boulevards Saint Germain and Saint Michel. Only one passage is offered to them that meets their needs: go up the Boulevard Saint Michel, where no barriers have been placed.

It must be said that in preparation for this demonstration groups of CRS, of Gendarmes Mobiles, and policemen were placed on the bridges of Paris, in such a way as to prevent the demonstrators from crossing the Seine and reaching the Champs Elysees, as they did by surprise on May 7.

At this moment the agreement appears to be tacit, and it is without apprehension and in relatively good order that the crowd takes over the Boulevard Saint Michel as far as the limits of the Place Edmond Rostand.

8:40 pm. The leaders of the demonstration, notably Messrs Alain Geismar (SNESup) and Jacques Sauvageot (UNEF) meet to make arrangements for after the demonstration. Quite quickly orders are given, among them that “the Latin Quarter must be occupied at whatever the cost.” That is, split up the demonstration in such a way that a group take up position in every street held by the police. It appears that the building of barricades wasn’t part of this plan. In any event, the word will not be pronounced.

Even so, from this moment small groups tear off the fences around trees and traffic signs and use them to rip up the paving stones. This initiative leads to occasionally violent discussions with demonstrators who want to ensure the demonstration a peaceful aspect. The argument most often used by those who were to become the partisans of the construction of barricades is that these are only defensive measures aimed at parrying any surprise attack.

9:15 pm, Rue Le Goff, when the first barricades goes up: a few cars, publicity panels, fences around trees, paving stones. The barrier, which quickly rose up, will set the example. The young people who “go to the front lines,” taking position across from the police positioned around the Pantheon and the Sorbonne, will find here a reference point as well as a way of filling in a prolonged wait that is, and will also make tangible their desire to “occupy” the heart of the Latin Quarter. Barricades quickly go up on Rues Royer-Collard, Saint Jacques, des Irelandais, de l’Estrapade, at the corner of Rues Claude Bernard and Gay Lussac, and at the junction of Rues Saint Jacques and Fosses Saint Jacques.

10:05 pm the Rector of the Sorbonne makes it known that he is ready to receive the students’ representatives: “I am ready to receive the representatives of the students of the Sorbonne, to examine with them, in keeping with the conditions in which they might take place, in calm, the re-opening of university classes.” The demonstrators learn of this declaration via their radios. But at this moment the tension grows, and M. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the March 22 Movement, standing atop a barricade, calls for calm and sang froid. He issues the following watchword: “occupation of the Latin Quarter, but without attacking the police.” A few minutes later, over the waves of Radio Luxembourg, a dialogue begins between vice rector Claude Chalin and M. Alain Geismar, secretary general of the SNE Sup. The vice rector declares himself ready to meet him in order to talk directly to him. But the latter specifies that before any discussion there must be an amnesty for the incarcerated students. This demand is the precondition for any dialogue, which M. Jacques Sauvageot, Vice President of the UNEF, also puts forth on Europe 1.

As the barricades multiply almost everywhere, though within a limited perimeter, the security forces receive reinforcements from units that had until then been positioned outside the Latin Quarter and close down the area, which with each passing minute takes on an insurrectional air.

This first operation by the forces of order creates a certain disquiet among many students, who begin to retreat. Others, on the contrary, build more barricades, which sprout up in even greater number and which will end by giving the image of a fortified camp.

Sixty barricades will be put up in this way and be continually fortified. Many of them were higher than two meters tall.

A veritable frenzy takes hold of the demonstrators in their hunt for materials that can reinforce the barricades they are building: cars, wood beams, rolls of wire, breeze blocks, scaffolding. Construction sites are pillaged. Helmets are taken, work vests; bulldozers are started up. There are soon anthills piling up, built of all that can be dragged along.

Between 11:00 and midnight the demonstration has taken on a strength and a dimension that some had sought to give it since Monday. There’s a sort of laborious, almost meticulous exaltation. A contagious enthusiasm, almost a joy.

Interview with the rector

12:15 am the hope of seeing everything end peaceably when it is learned that Cohn-Bendit, as well as several other students and professors, are received by the Rector, Jean Roch, who, it is said, had been in telephone contact with M. Alain Peyrefitte, the minister of National Education.

He does nothing but offer the previous proposals: re-opening of the Sorbonne in the morning, “examining with benevolence” the cases of the arrested students.

A bit later an incident – the first – leads us to believe that the demonstration won’t take a dramatic turn. In fact, two police buses, caught under the fire of paving stones across from the mining school will, in order to get away, drive into the crowd at the Place Edmond-Rostand and take refuge behind a cordon of Gendarmes Mobiles stationed at the bottom of the Rue Soufflot. Tear Gas is fired in response to this attack. But quickly, with sang froid and mastery, the incident is handled by the demonstration marshals, who return to form a chain in front of the policemen. The “work” is taken up again, as several hundred young people again tear up the paving stones.

1:00 am we learned that M. Louis Joxe, Guard of the Seals, who is the interim Prime Minister, spoke to M. Christian Fouchet, the minister of the Interior at the Place Beauvau. M. Joxe had previously conferred at the ministry of Justice with Messrs. Jacques Foccart, general secretary of the presidency of the Republic, Alain Peyrefitte, minister of National Education, and Michel Debré, minister of Finance.

1:15 am vice-rector Chalin declared: “We have attempted to negotiate. We have attempted all means in order to avoid having recourse to force. The situation is now out of our hands.” The vice rector summed up a posteriori the situation as it presented itself at the moment M. Cohn-Bendit rejoined his comrades on the streets.

After the failure of the negotiations, and with the presence of the barricades, the re-establishing of order posed a delicate problem which M. Grimaud, police prefect, communicated to the ministry of the Interior.

1:35 am the Guard of the Seals left the ministry of the Interior.

At the same time, behind the barricades, the several thousand demonstrators who remained were joined by a few hundred young people from the Federation des etudiants revolutionnaires (Federation of revolutionary students) who, red flags at the lead, took up position.

While Daniel Cohn-Bendit and those who accompanied him were still in the Rector’s office, on the streets people were preparing to pass the night. Those living along the river tossed food to them from their windows; they were brought drinks. Despite the depredations of all kinds, and especially the smashing and flipping over of cars, a visible sympathy seems to have taken hold between the uncompromising ones at the barricades and their spectators.

The presence of older men can be noted in their ranks, who don’t hesitate to give advice, to assist in the construction of barricades. For them, as for a certain number of young workers, it’s a matter of demonstrating against “the bourgeois order.”

1:45 am. Cohn-Bendit leaves the rectorate and declares: “We didn’t engage in negotiations; we said to the Rector: “What’s happening this evening in the streets is that an entire youth is expressing itself against a certain society.

We said to him that in order for there not to be any spilling of blood it’s necessary that the police leave the Latin Quarter, and that as long as our three demands aren’t met we know that the demonstrators will remain behind their barricades.” Over the airwaves the students affirm their complete solidarity with these statements. These statements make it clear that the chances for an immediate compromise have become nonexistent and the test of strength that was feared now seems the most probable eventuality.

The police assault

2:15 am after the reading of the riot act the order was given to the police to suppress the barricades and to disperse the demonstrators. 500 CRS, shields in one hand, truncheons in the other, move out on the Rue Auguste Comte and advance on the Boulevard St. Michel, pushing back the students in front of them.

An atrocious conflict

Previously the Rector, Jean Roche, had made the following appeal to the students: “Reason can still win out over violence in order to avoid the worst. The Rector of Paris and the men of the university ask the students to hear their appeal and to spontaneously end the atrocious conflict they have begun.” Quickly the CRS, who had left the Rue Auguste Comte, throw tear gas grenades. The demonstrators who are singing The “Internationale” and the “Marseillaise” reply by throwing stones and diverse projectiles. The forces of order, in this first phase of their action, don’t seek close contact, which could be deadly, but remain at a distance, firing tear gas grenades with their rifles without let up.

The air soon becomes un-breathable near the first barricades on the Rue Gay Lussac, and the demonstrators are forced to retreat and abandon one or two of their places of refuges in order to retreat behind others.

2:40 am. A first barricade falls on the Boulevard St Michel. In order to delay the slow but already ineluctable advance of the forces of order the students ignite their barricades with gas and set fire to tourist buses that they push into the middle of the street. IN the face of the determination of the demonstrators the police will soon use offensive grenades. There are many wounded on both sides. Because of the barricades, the combats, and the closing off of the area the evacuation of people touched or indisposed by the gas is extremely difficult. First aid centers are set up in various spots in the zones still untouched, from which the wounded would later be transported.

3:00 am, and while for more than an hour the students have been chanting “De Gaulle Assassin” the police charges are multiplying and they are removing the barricades one after another after strong resistance. Many people throw water from their windows onto the students to protect them from the affects of the tear gas. From time to time the police fire grenades into the apartments of these people to force them to retreat, sometimes to higher floors. The most ferocious combats will take place in the sector of the Rues Gay Lussac, Royer-Collard, d’Ulm, and St Jacques. The demonstrators only abandon their positions after being sure that they can do nothing more. And yet everything will have been tried during that night of riot: Molotov cocktails, burned cars, spreading of sand with bulldozers found at construction sites.

Despite the many fires, for about a hundred burned cars can be counted, the progress of the forces of order took place without obstacle, and the demonstrators found themselves backed into an increasingly limited space.

3:15 am M. Alain Peyrefittte, minister of National Education and Georges Gorse, minister of Information, arrived at the Place Beauvau to talk the situation over with M. Christian Fouchet, minister of the Interior. M. Bernard Tricot, secretary general of the Elysée palace hadn’t left the ministry of the Interior the whole evening.

4:20 am the government made public the communiqué that will be read. Ten minutes later M. Louis Joxe came back to talk with Messrs Christian Fouchet and Bernard Tricot. At that moment small groups are still resisting, notably on the Rue Thouin, where a CRS section is attacked with Molotov cocktails that students throw from the roofs. The last combatants take refuge in the offices of the Ecole Normale Superieure on the Rue d’Ulm, which will receive grenade fire. The Mouffetard quarter, the last pocket of resistance, is “cleaned up.”

5:30 am Cohn-Bendit in a radio appeal calls for dispersion, and starting at 6:00 patrols will go through quarter, arresting individuals or small groups of demonstrators who left buildings where in many cases the inhabitants had sheltered them.

Appeals for calm

In the course of the night Mgr. Marty, Archbishop of Paris, had made an appeal over the airwaves of Radio Luxembourg: “I appeal for calm. The violence must immediately cease. I ask all those who bear responsibility on both sides to meet again. A just solution must be arrived at quickly. This concerns us all.” This appeal was repeated over the ORTF in the morning.

What is more, in his name as well as that of Professor Henri Cartan, Professor Laurent Schwartz had given the press the following declaration: “We have communicated with the ministry of the Interior and we have said that if the order were given to the police to stop the combats in the coming instants we would intercede with the UNEF and the SNESup so that the students would also stop, and that if this order is not given to the police in the coming instants we would resign from the French university. We were given no response.” Finally, while the radio stations give the addresses of first aid stations, in the name of Nobel Prize winners Professors Alfred Kastler, Nobel Prize for Physics in 1966 and Jacques Monod, Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1965, and a great number of their colleagues of the University of Paris, Professor Francois Michaud of the Faculty of Letters of Nanterre addresses a “final and urgent appeal to the government and to all the authorities so that they bring an immediate halt to the combats, that the police disarm so that the first aid service can pass through to ensure the transport of the many wounded and that the hospitals be ready to receive them.”

6:00 am, Messrs Louis Joxe, Christian Fouchet, Pierre Messmer and Jacques Foccart go to the Elysée Palace after a meeting they’d held in the office of the minister of the Interior at the Place Beauvau.

A spectacle of desolation

In the perimeter comprising the area between the Luxembourg metro station, the Pantheon, the Place de la Contrescarpe, and the Rue Gay Lussac, where most of the barricades had been put up, a spectacle of desolation is offered to our gaze. Near the Place de la Contrescarpe, the Rue Descartes, the Rue Thouin, the Rue Blainville, the paving stones torn up, stones and beams borrowed from buildings being demolished, pieces of palisades, and fencing still block the street. The most impressive barricades are those of the Rue Claude Bernard (made with carts from construction sites), those that block the Rue Gay Lussac and the Rue St Jacques (built essentially of piled up paving stones and almost as tall as a man, those of the Rue d’Ulm, near the Ecole Normale Superieure, which holds the record for height – almost three meters.

Almost everywhere in this chaos, and adding to these nineteenth century images those of a cataclysm of the twentieth, one can see the carcasses of burned cars, vehicles with their windshields reduced to pieces – with bodies smashed in when they were used for the building of barricades. In this regard the Rue Pierre and Marie Curie and the Rue Gay Lussac offer a particularly sorry spectacle: spread across the street, sometimes laying on their sides or flipped over on their roofs, the carcasses are scattered about in their dozens.

Needless to say, any circulation remains impracticable in this sector. Road crews have, nevertheless, cleared it up at the beginning of the morning.

6:30 am, a portion of the street of the Boulevard St Michel is blocked by a tree brought down by the demonstrators. But traffic jams are inevitable.

It is in this decor that in the early morning, while police cars patrol, small groups of young people begin to assemble.

The entry to the Rue Gay Lussac, near the Luxembourg metro station, is still guarded by a large cordon of CRS who take shelter behind the barricade of paving stones, still in place. They are confronting a scattered assemblage of demonstrators, who shout insults at them and chant “De Gaulle Assassin!”

10:00 am, 300 demonstrators come from the top of the Boulevard St Michel heading towards the Place Edmond Rostand, where they are greeted by tear gas grenades.

10:45 am, about 80 degree candidates who are at the Sorbonne to take their tests refuse to participate in them and left the university. They have seated themselves on the street of the Rue Soufflot in front of the forces of order. They intend in this way to protest against the absence of a portion of their comrades who participated these last few days in the test and who didn’t appear this morning. In their opinion they were either wounded or arrested in the course of the demonstrations. A certain agitation has reached other quarters and the suburbs, notably Versailles.

200 political science students, who this morning were supposed to take their final exams, have succeeded in having them postponed to a later date. They have come to demonstrate on the Rue de Grenelle demanding to be received by M Alain Peyrefitte.

After having obtained a discussion between three of theirs and M. Olmer, director of higher learning, who announced to them that “measures of appeasement were being studied” they paraded back to their school.

A similar confusion could be noted among the high-schoolers. On the Rue Clotilde, before the Lycee Henri IV around 200 striking students were seated in the street.

At the beginning of the school day, in front of the Buffon and Rodin Lycées, the students who presented themselves without great conviction hesitated to engage in discussions – as they had done the past few days – with their comrades who wanted to block them. Several hundred high-schoolers assembled near the Place Clichy to parade to the Gare St Lazare.

In the late morning a small group of high-school boys and girls assembled at the Place de la Republique. Standing on the base of the statue orators invited the students to meet in front of their high schools at 2:00 pm.

Tension at the end of the morning

Calm reigns at the end of the morning in the Latin Quarter, but at every minute threatens its being put in question. In fact a large group of demonstrators, among whom it seems there are many high-schoolers, went down the Rue Guynemer in order to pass in front of the law school and then stopped on the Rue d’Assas.

10:30 am merchants who had opened their shop windows lowered their curtains since groups were trying to re-form on the Place Edmond Rostand, where a large force of police attempts without violence to channel them, to disperse them, or to encircle them.

Some demonstrators shout, “CRS, SS.” In additiona, the silent demonstration begun in the morning by the degree candidates occurred across from the Rue Soufflot without incident.