3. The Struggle in the Streets
I know that you count them for nothing because the court is armed: but I beg you to let me say that they should count for a great deal the moment they count themselves for everything. That is the point they have come to: they themselves are beginning to count your armies for nothing, and it's very unfortunate that their strength lies precisely in their imagination. One could truly say that what makes them different from all other forms of power is their ability, having reached a certain point, to do everything of which they believe themselves capable.
Cardinal de Retz, Mémoires
IN ITSELF THE MEETING of May 3rd was banal: as usual three or four hundred hangers-on had responded to the call. The few dozen fascists of the "Occident" group counter-demonstrated at the beginning of the afternoon on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Several Enragés at the Sorbonne called for the organization of self-defense. Furniture had to be broken up as there were no clubs. Rector Roche and his policemen thought this would be sufficient pretext for an attack. The police and the gendarmerie mobile invaded the courtyard of the Sorbonne without meeting resistance. The students were encircled. The police then offered them free passage out of the courtyard. The students accepted and the first to leave were in fact allowed to pass. The operation took time and other students began to gather outside in the quarter. The remaining two hundred demonstrators inside the Sorbonne, including all the organizers, were arrested. As the police vans carried them away the Latin Quarter erupted. One of the two vans never reached its destination. Only three policemen guarded the second van. They were beaten up, and several dozen demonstrators escaped.
It was the first time in many years that several thousand students in Paris had fought the police for so long and with such energy. Endless charges, greeted with hails of paving stones, failed to clear the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the adjoining streets until several hours later. Some six hundred people were arrested. The immediate reaction of the Syndicat National de l'Enseignment Supérieur (the National Union of Employees in Higher Education, SNES) and of the UNEF was to call for an unlimited strike in higher education. The stiff prison sentences handed out to the four demonstrators on May 5th only served to confirm the demonstration that had been called for May 6th to put pressure on the University Council.
Naturally the Stalinists did all they could to break the movement. George Marchais' editorial in L'Humanité on May 3rd, which exposed this policy almost at the level of parody, angered the mass of students. From that moment on the Stalinists found themselves denied the floor in all the centers of revolutionary agitation which the students began to create.
The whole of May 6th was marked by demonstrations which turned into riots early in the afternoon. The first barricades were thrown up at the Place Maubert and defended for three hours. At the same time fights with the police were breaking out at the bottom of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, at the Place du Châtelet, and in Les Halles. By the early evening the demonstrators numbered more than ten thousand and were mainly holding the area around the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where they had been reinforced only after 6 p.m. by the bulk of the march organized by the UNEF at Denfert-Rochereau.1 On May 8th Le Monde wrote:
What followed surpassed in scope and violence everything that had happened throughout an already astonishing day. It was a kind of street fighting that sometimes reached a frenzy, where every blow delivered was immediately returned, and where ground that had scarcely been conquered was just as quickly retaken... There were dramatic and senseless moments which, for the observer, seemed rife with madness.
And on May 7th LAurore noted: "Alongside the demonstrators could be seen bands of young hoods (blousons noirs) armed with steel bars, who had come in from the outlying areas of Paris to help out the students." The fighting lasted until after midnight, especially at Montparnasse.
For the first time cars were overturned and set afire, paving stones were dug up for the barricades, and stores were looted. The use of subversive slogans, which had begun at Nanterre, had now spread to several parts of Paris. Insofar as the rioters were able to strengthen the barricades, and thus their own capacity for counterattack, the police were forced to abandon direct charges for a position strategy which relied mainly on offensive grenades and tear gas.
May 6th also marked the first intervention of workers, blousons noirs, the unemployed, and high school students who that morning had organized important demonstrations. The spontaneity and violence of the riots stood in vivid contrast to the platitudes put forth by their academic initiators as goals and slogans.2 The very fact that the blousons noirs had fought in the streets shouting "The Sorbonne to the students!" marked an end to an entire era. A week later these politicized blousons noirs were themselves at the Sorbonne.
The UNEF, which had been denouncing the violence throughout the Monday demonstrations, was obliged to change its rhetoric the following day to avoid being totally discredited, and in order to continue its moderating activity. On the other hand the Stalinists of the CGT, giving up completely, preferred to cut themselves off totally from the students in order to keep their hold on those workers who were still isolated from the fighting. Seguy proclaimed at an evening press conference that there would be "no complacency towards the trouble makers and provocateurs who were denigrating the working class, accusing it of being bought off by the bourgeoisie, and who have the outrageous pretension of trying to inculcate it with revolutionary theory and to lead its struggle. Along with other leftists, certain elements are trying to strip student unionism of its legitimate demands and of its mass democratic nature for the benefit of the UNEF. But they are only acting in the interests of established power..."
It was precisely in this context that Geismar, Sauvageot, and Cohn-Bendit could become the apparent leaders of a leaderless movement. The press, radio, and television, in their search for leaders, found no one besides them. They became the inseparable and photogenic stars of a spectacle hastily pasted over the revolutionary reality. By accepting that role they spoke in the name of a movement they did not understand. Of course, to do this they had to accept the greater part of its revolutionary tendencies as far as they manifested themselves (Cohn-Bendit was able to reflect this radical content somewhat better). But since this holy family of improvised neo-leftism could only be the spectacular deformation of the real movement, it represented its most caricatured image. Their Trinity, endlessly offered through the mass media, in fact represented the real communication which was being sought and realized in the struggle. This trio of ideological charm of 819 varieties could obviously only say the acceptable and therefore the deformed and recuperated tolerated by such a means of transmission. While the real meaning of the moment which had propelled them out of nowhere was purely unacceptable.
The demonstration of May 7th was so well controlled the UNEF and its hard-pressed monitors that it limited itself to an interminable promenade along a rambling authorized route: from Denfert to the Êtoile, and back. The organizers asked for nothing more than the reopening of the Sorbonne, the withdrawal of the police from the Latin Quarter, and the release of the imprisoned students. They continued to mill around for another two days, during which only minor scuffles took place. But the government was reluctant to fulfill even these modest demands. They promised to reopen the Sorbonne, but Sauvegeot and Geismar, who were already being accused of betrayal by an impatient rank-and-file, were forced to announce that the building would be occupied day and night for a sit-in and "a discussion of the problems of the university." In these circumstances, Minister Peyrefitte maintained the police presence in the Sorbonne while reopening Nanterre as a test to measure the "goodwill" of the students.
On Friday the 10th more than twenty thousand people met once again at Denfert-Rochereau.3 The same organizers discussed where it would be best to lead the demonstration. After a long debate they decided on the ORTF (radio and television center), but with an initial detour past the Ministry of Justice. Arriving at the Latin Quarter, the demonstrators found all the streets leading to the Seine blocked by the police, which was enough to condemn the absurd itinerary once and for all. They decided to stay in the Latin Quarter until the Sorbonne was returned to them. At about 9 p.m. the first barricades went up spontaneously. Everyone recognized instantly the reality of their desires in that act. Never had the passion for destruction shown itself to be so creative. Everyone ran to the barricades.
The leaders had completely lost control. They had to accept the faît accompli while making clumsy attempts to minimize it. They protested that the barricades should be strictly defensive; and that the police should not be provoked! Doubtless the forces of order had committed a bad tactical error by allowing the barricades to go up without immediately risking an attack to tear them down. But the construction of a system of barricades solidly defending an entire quarter was already an unforgivable step towards the negation of the state: any form of statist power would be obliged to reconquer the barricaded zone that had escaped its power as quickly as possible, or else dissolve. (It was because of the excess of ideological distortion maintained by their idiotic spokesmen that so many people on the barricades believed that the police would not attack them.)
The barricaded quarter was circumscribed by the Boulevard Saint-Michel to the west and Rue Mouffetard to the east, Rue Claude Bernard to the south and the Place du Pantheon to the north, lines touched upon but not controlled by its defenses. Its principal thoroughfares were Rues Gay-Lussac, Lhomond, and Tournefor, going northwest and southeast, and Rue dUlm going north and south. Rue Pierre Curie and Rue Ursulines-Thuillier were the only communications east and west. The area in the hands of the insurgents had an independent existence from 10 p.m. until just after 2 a.m. Attacked at 2:15 a.m. by forces moving in from all sides, the quarter was able to defend itself for more than three hours, continually losing ground on the western section and holding out until 5:30 a.m. at the approaches to Rue Mouffetard.
Between fifteen hundred and two thousand people remained on the barricades at the moment of attack. Students did not make up even half that number. On hand were large numbers of high school students, blousons noirs, and a few hundred workers and not only young workers. This was the elite, this was "the scum" (pègre). Many foreigners and women took part in the fight. The revolutionary elements of almost all the leftist groups were there, notably a large number of anarchists, even some members of the Anarchist Federation carrying the black flag, which had begun to appear in the street on May 6th, and bitterly defending their stronghold at the intersection of the Rues de l'Estapade, Blainville, and Thouin. The residents of the area showed their sympathy for the very same rioters who were burning their cars by giving them food, water to combat the effects of the gas, and finally refuge from the police.
The sixty barricades, of which twenty were quite solid, allowed a rather prolonged defense and even some respite from the battle, within a limited perimeter. The weakness of the improvised weapons, and particularly the lack of organization which made it impossible to launch any counterattacks to widen the combat zone, left the rioters caught in a dragnet.
The last pretensions of those who hoped to lead the movement collapsed during the night in shameful resignation and pure impotence. The FER, which had the best disciplined flock, paraded its five hundred militants up to the barricades to declare that the whole affair was the result of provocation and that it was thus necessary to leave. Which they did, red flag leading the way. At the same time, Cohn-Bendit and Sauvegeot, still imprisoned by their obligations as stars, went to tell Rector Roche that "to avoid any bloodshed" the police should be withdrawn from the quarter. This extravagant request, made at such a moment to a man with absolutely no power in the situation, was so surpassed by events that it could only sustain an hour of the most naïve illusions. Roche simply advised those who had come to consult with him to tell "the students" to give up and go home.
The battle was very rough. The CRS, the police, and the gendarmerie mobile succeeded in making the barricades untenable by an intense bombardment of incendiary, offensive, and chloride gas grenades, before they would risk taking them by assault. The rioters responded with paving stones and Molotov cocktails. They set fire to cars turned over in zigzag lines of defense to slow down the enemy advance. Some got onto roofs to drop all sorts of projectiles onto the police. Several times the police were forced back. More often the revolutionaries set fire to the barricades they could no longer hold. There were several hundred injured and five hundred arrests. Four or five hundred took refuge in the buildings of the École Normale Superieure on the Rue d'Ulm, which the police did not dare to enter. Two or three hundred others had been able to pull back to the Rue Monge, or found refuge in the homes of the residents of the quarter or escaped over the roofs. The police swept the quarter until noon, beating up and taking off anyone who looked suspicious.
1. Here it is important to point out the gap between the attitude of the organizers and the real struggle that had been under way for hours: "At the approaches to Place Denfert-Rochereau, where no police were to be seen... barricades were thrown up with materials from various construction yards in the area, despite the orders of the UNEF monitors and several other student organizations." (Le Monde, May 8th)
2. END THE REPRESSION, FREE OUR COMRADES, ROCHE RESIGN, FREEDOM FOR THE TRADE UNIONS, SORBONNE FOR THE STUDENTS. The same backwardness is to be found in the tone of the declaration of the national offices of the Fédération des Ètudiants Revolutionnaire (FER), which on the following day hailed the "thousands of students and young workers who responded to the call of the UNEF to defend democratic and trade union freedom and who found themselves engaged all Monday with the repressive forces of the Gaullist state." (Author's emphasis.)
3. The University Council, which was supposed to meet that day to consider the situation at Nanterre, decided to postpone its session because it felt that the necessary calm was not at hand. An anonymous tract, distributed on May 6th, The Council of the University of Paris: Instruction for its Use, had revealed the addresses and phone numbers of all its members. The declaration of René Riesel, The Castle is Burning!, could therefore not be read by the judges, but was simply distributed to the demonstrators.