By: Margot Lyon
Date: May 10, 1968
Source: Lyon, Margot. "Sorbonne Revolt." New Statesman, May 10, 1968.
About the Author: Margot Lyon contributes this report from Paris to the New Statesman, a weekly magazine featuring commentary on politics and current affairs.
The French student riots of May, 1968, began when the ongoing conflict at the University of Paris at Nanterre led the administration to shut down the university and threaten several students with expulsion. In a display of solidarity, students at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris gathered to protest the closure. The Sorbonne's administration reacted by calling the police in to arrest protestors leaving campus. The situation continued to escalate, with additional students joining the protest in defense of those targeted by the police. When the authorities implemented tear gas in an attempt to end the protest, even more students joined the demonstration. While the police eventually cleared the area, arresting many of the protestors in the process, the use of force ultimately backfired on the administration. The following Monday, the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France, France's largest student trade union, joined with the union of university teachers in a march to protest the police involvement. When they arrived at the Sorbonne where police maintained a line of defense, the protest developed into a large-scale riot. Over the days that followed, the government's forceful reaction to the situation continued to draw sympathy for the protestors, leading various unions to strike or to join in the demonstration and resulting in a month of protests and discord throughout Paris.
The pitched battles that raged in the Quartier Latin between ten thousand students and the Paris police this week have left the French gasping with amazement and dismay—and General de Gaulle, it is said, fuming at the outrage to France's image just at the moment when the world's press-men are arriving for the Vietnam peace talks. After the weekend's disturbances, when almost six hundred students were arrested and the Sorbonne closed, the real violence began at the Place St. Germain and the Rue de Rennes last Monday. In no time at all the demonstration turned into a riot; students tore up chunks of macadam and broke paving stones for missiles, not only to throw at the gendarmes but to smash shop windows. Cars and buses were immobilized with tyres slashed, and normal traffic brought to a standstill. Before nightfall Education Minister Alain Peyrefitte appealed on TV for an end to violence, and promised to talk to student representatives if rioting stopped.
His offer came months if not years, too late. What students were telling him—conscious of the world's eye on them and relishing the publicity—was that their patience was exhausted. The numbers of demonstrators involved quashing the myth, cherished up to now by the administration, that the entire quarrel has been inflated by small groups of left-wing trouble-makers led by Maoist ringleader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German student from the Sorbonne's arts faculty. Significantly, this is located in the red Paris suburb of Nanette—a four-year old 'model' faculty of soulless ferro-concrete, already grown dingy, set down in a muddy waste-land where there is nowhere for students to go and nothing to see. But trouble in recent weeks at Nantes, Nice, Bordeaux, Besancon and Montpellier has by no means all been stage-managed by the Nanterre activists. It may not even have been touched off by a wish to outdo the spectacular outbreaks in Berlin and Rome, Madrid or even Columbia. The grievances are real, longstanding and bitterly resented.
First of them is the failure of French postwar administrations (even Gaullism, despite its pride in national culture and grandeur) to provide decent educational opportunities for les enfants de France. In 1945, just over 123,000 students, almost all of them middle-class in origin, attended universities. Now, in 1968, there are 514,000—crowded into laboratories, libraries and lecture halls that are totally inadequate and, even worse, run on outworn disciplinary principles, like an Oxbridge controlled by little Napoleons. Twenty-year-olds, who in the lecture-room are expected to be capable of sophisticated thinking, and who outside them quite naturally discuss anything from Vietnam to race or the gold questions, are subjected to regulations in the halls of residence as if they were still children—or conscripts. 'Our faculties are run like barracks or boarding schools' is the nation-wide grievance that has driven French students wild.
Inevitably, the trouble first broke out over sex—or, let's say, the limitation on visiting between men and women students. It hit the headlines in the autumn of 1965, when the men students of Antony (part of the extended cite universitaire on the southern outskirts of Paris) manhandled workmen building a portress's lodge for the girls' dormitory. The lodge was finally built, with hundreds of police to guard the bricklayers. But repeated appeals to allow men and women students adult freedom were met only last February, when Peyrefitte decreed that students over twenty-one could invite women to their rooms until eleven p.m.! But girls of any age, whether major or minor, were denied the same right because 'by the laws of nature' they stood more risk.
That, in part, is what led to this week's street fighting. But the right to freedom between the sexes is the symbol of all the rights the students claim: essentially, the right to have their adulthood recognized, even if their maturity is precocious by traditional standards; the right to escape from paternalism. They want to democratize education, although it is an entrenched preserve of deeply traditional France. Yet at the same time the students are also fighting to preserve the old ideal of a liberal education against the encroachments of our technocratic age. One of their main complaints is that French universities are being turned into forcing-houses for the mass-produced elite that the national economy needs. In resisting this type of change, they—like student rebels throughout Europe—are questioning the university's role in society and, through this, the nature of modern society itself. Paradoxically, they may thereby be contributing to the further break-up of the university ideal that they seek to defend.
The student riots at the Sorbonne, and even the protest that began earlier at the University of Paris at Nanterre, were about far more than the students' rights to entertain members of the opposite sex in their dormitory rooms. While this restriction provided the catalyst for the demonstrations, and the timing of the protests was very much affected by the presence of representatives of the international press for the Vietnam peace talks, the driving force behind the events was the students' need to govern themselves and to be accepted as viable members of adult society. Due to the baby boom following World War Two, the increase in the number of students seeking a university education had put a burden on educational resources and the quality of university services had declined as a result. The students demanded a voice in their educational system and in the rules that governed their housing, as well as those that governed their society. They also stood up for better academic conditions, holding the government to their earlier promise of sufficient educational opportunities for all Frenchmen willing to apply themselves, a promise the nation had fallen short of fulfilling in the more than two decades since the end of the war when it was proposed.
As a result, the students' determination spread to other demographic groups, encouraging workers to stand up for their rights as well and promoting strikes by a number of major unions, both in sympathy with the student protests and on their own behalf. The protests spread across the country, affecting the Sud-Aviation factory in Nantes, the Renault car factory at Cleon, and shutting down the Cannes Film Festival. Planes and trains went off schedule and the newspapers deliveries became irregular. What began as a simple protest against poor conditions and a lack of rights at a branch of the University of Paris ended up affecting the majority of the nation.
The revolt at the Sorbonne created new political situations, as well. During the latter stages of the protest, when workers joined the march and the unions were on strike, demands were not limited to the need for higher wages, but in some more radical instances called for an ousting of the existing government, including then-President Charles de Gaulle. While de Gaulle refused to step down and went so far as to assure himself of the support of the French military if the rioting continued, he ultimately dissolved the National Assembly and agreed to new elections the following month. He was forced to make these announcements over the radio, as the national television service was part of the strike. Ultimately, he was reelected, but the term proved to be his last.
The protests themselves, with their demands for rights for students and workers, echoed the earlier revolutionary struggles in France, as well as in other countries around the globe. New political figures rose as a result of the protests, most notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit, then a twenty-three-year-old student at the University of Nanterre, who served as spokesman there during the early days of the protest and who was arrested prior to the closing of the school. Cohn-Bendit rose through the European political arena in the years following the revolts, and eventually became co-president of the European Green party in the European Parliament. During the protests, Cohn-Bendit stood for the voice of the students, demanding the right to certain freedoms and claiming that the Sorbonne and the university system in its entirety belonged to the people. The effect of the riots on the state of the nation and the near-collapse of the French government served as a warning to other countries that were experiencing student protests, proving that small radical student groups could not be ignored.
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