Young people have been demonstrating again in Paris, 40 years after
the riots which nearly toppled the French government. But John
Pickford, who was studying there in 1968, says today's protests are a
very different affair.
19 April 2008
I saw her at the entrance to a cafe in the heart of the student
district of Paris - a woman of about 20 with ash-blonde hair and
blood streaming through it.
This was the day when weeks of tension between students and the
authorities finally erupted in violence in the streets around the
That cafe became my place of refuge for the next six hours as a
surreal battle raged around it.
Students in the Boulevard St Michel were lobbing cobblestones at
police while traffic was still passing.
A police tear-gas grenade exploded in a puff of smoke on the back of
a fleeing student, and another on the side of a stationary bus full
There were sporadic charges at the students by police in riot gear -
batons, helmets, shields - like medieval hit squads.
It was in one such charge that I saw the girl with blonde hair
clubbed over the head.
When I walk the streets of Paris, some camera in my head starts
whirring and the sights and sounds of 40 years ago come to life.
And I find myself asking questions. Could that outpouring of energy,
anger and rebellion that was May 1968 happen again? What is
preoccupying the students of today?
The entrance to the Sorbonne is now guarded by security men but
rather impressively - or worryingly, some might say - after two
minutes of negotiation, one of them decided to let me in.
Was it telling him I was a student there 40 years ago that convinced
him I was no threat?
Sitting on a stone bench in the sunny, cobbled courtyard, I looked up
at the great dome that towers over it.
In 1968, some intrepid youth had climbed right to the top and
unfurled there the black flag of the anarchists.
It fluttered over the citadel of the university for weeks, even after
the student occupation had ended.
'Students are never happy'
A student came to sit beside me in the sunshine and smoke an
elegantly rolled cigarette. I asked her what she thought of 1968. She
looked bemused. "Rien," (nothing) she said.
"But, the students weren't very happy in 1968, were they?" I ventured.
"Students are never happy," she replied.
But for Claire Prest, who is now in her 60s, the streets of Paris in
May 1968 were brimming with romantic intensity. She had just begun a
love affair with the man she would marry.
"See you a la manif" (see you at the demo) was part of their
courtship, as were the debates they witnessed together in the great
lecture halls of the Sorbonne during the student occupation.
She looks back on a time of creativity and excitement, with slogans
like "Il est interdit d'interdire" (it is forbidden to forbid) as the
Later when I met Claire's daughter, Genevieve, I asked her how it
felt to be, in a sense, a child of 1968. She paused and raised her
eyebrows. "They certainly weren't revolutionary parents!" she said.
Now that camera in my head begins whirring again and I see more ghosts.
I see those ancient metro trains - whose construction and design owed
more to the 1920s than the 60s - with slatted wooden seats and
notices saying "Defense de Cracher" (no spitting).
I see the little jukeboxes in cafes that used to play - endlessly -
that breathy, suggestive "succes de scandale" of the time, "Je t'aime
moi non plus".
I see men smoking pipes while reading the Communist newspaper, L'Humanite.
But back in the present, I see some real ghosts - police in riot gear
and police vans lined up in a side street. Yes, there was going to be
a demonstration that afternoon by 16-18 year olds from the lycees
They are angry because reforms under President Sarkozy have led to
the axing of nearly 12,000 teaching posts and, they claim, larger classes.
Paying the rent
So in 2008, with the plane trees in the Jardin de Luxembourg coming
into fresh leaf, I watched thousands of lycee students marching up
the Boulevard St Michel, and at moments, I was back in that Paris
spring of 40 years ago.
One banner read: "Do we need another 1968?" and I saw a fleeting
reference to Tibet, but the focus of this protest was domestic and
the goals limited.
The students had specific grievances in 1968 as well, notably against
the rigidly hierarchical way the universities were organised - but
they went on to believe they could change France, if not the world.
A teacher highlighted the difference for me: "This generation doesn't
want to change society. They just want to be able to get a job good
enough to pay the rent and that's why they're worried about the
quality of their education."
Nonetheless, when sufficiently fired up and organised, French
students have shown in recent years that no government can afford to
be complacent once they take to the streets.
Last week the right-of-centre newspaper, Le Figaro, summed up that
perception with a quote which, not surprisingly, remains anonymous:
"The young are like toothpaste, easier to get out of the tube than to
put back in again."