• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Paris in the Spring


The street battles which took place near the Sorbonne in mid-May between students and police were very ritualistic. In the late afternoon while it was still daylight, the students started building barricades. On Friday (May 24) these were particularly elaborate. First they tore up paving stones and piled them up as though they were rebuilding memories of 1789, 1848, 1870. Then, in a mood of dedicated desecration, they axed down—so that they fell lengthwise across the street—a few of the sappy plane trees, spring-leafed, just awake from winter. Then they scattered over the paving stones and among the leaves, boxes, wood, trash from the uncollected strikebound garbage on the sidewalks. Lastly, as the night closed in, they tugged, pulled with much rumblings, neighboring parked cars, braked but dragged over the streets just the same, and placed them on their sides, like trophies of smashed automobiles by the sculptor César, on top of the paving stones, among the branches. In an arrangement of this kind on the Boulevard St. Germain, they had extended the contour of a burned-out car by adding to it the quarter section of one of those wrought-iron grills which encircle at the base the trunks of trees on the boulevards to protect their roots. After the night’s fighting, this chassis had acquired a wonderful coral tint. On its pediment of bluish paving stones it looked like an enshrined museum object. It was left there for two or three days and much photographed by the tourists who poured into the Latin Quarter during the daytime.

THERE IS NOT a sign of a policeman while the barricades are being built. Presumably the rules of what has become a war game are being observed; within a few days the police, after having attempted to occupy, have abandoned the territory of the Sorbonne. The Boulevard Saint-Michel is student territory, as witness the fact that students control the traffic. However the completion of the barricades is the sign that the territory may be invaded. The police are now to be let out of the long crate-like camions with thick wire netting over the windows behind which they wait like mastiffs. One sees them assembled at the end of the Boulevard near the bridge. Their massed forms in the shadows, solid, stirring, helmeted, some of them carrying shields, seem those of medieval knights. A few of the students also carry shields, the lids of dust-bins, and swords or spear-length sticks. Slowly the massed police advance up the street like a thick wedge of mercury up a glass tube. The students retreat to their barricades and set the trash and wood alight. The police now start firing tear gas shells and detonators which make heavy explosions. When they are within a few feet of the advancing black mass of police the students run away, occasionally picking up and hurling back shells which have not exploded.

The beatnik word “cat” suddenly occurs to me. The wild, quickly running, backward and sideways turning, yowling and scratching students are like cats, the police stolidly massively pursuing them are like dogs.

Terrible things happen to students who are caught and taken to the police cells.

Note that my friend, the painter Jean Hélion, told me of a couple seen weeping over the burned-out cadaver of their car on which they had spent their savings.


The center of the Sorbonne is a courtyard enclosed by cliffs of buff-colored stucco walls. They don’t shut out the sky but at the top they make an ugly edge against it. There are two tiers of rather grandiose steps across the whole width of one end of the courtyard leading up to the pillared chapel. Along the sides of the courtyard there are now tables piled with books, magazines, pamphlets, leaflets, etc., all of them “revolutionary.” Behind the tables students sit, displaying these wares. Most of the slogans and posters appear to proclaim communism. But on closer inspection one finds that there is no variety of communism here to offer any comfort to Moscow or the French official Communist Party. Even a magazine called La Nouvelle Humanité turns out to be Trotskyist, abhorrent to the sellers of the old Humanité who have been banished to the outer gates at the entrance of the Sorbonne. The brands of revolution offered by the students are Maoist, Castroite, Trotskyist. Pictures of Mao, Che Guevara, Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, are displayed on walls, hoardings, pamphlets, and leaflets. Stalin’s portrait put in a brief appearance one day, but quickly disappeared.

One day there was a table for Kurds, Turks, Arabs, and Algerians; posters attacking Zionism were on the wall behind them. The Sorbonne is cosmopolitan French culture. I noticed among the bewildering assortment of advertisements—appeals, bulletins posted everywhere or leaflets thrust into your hand—directives to Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and German students. And of course there were Americans. Two sat rather innocuously at a table collecting signatures for a petition in support of Mendès-France. A committee of American students hangs out at the sister offices of the Sorbonne in the Rue Censier, where there are also the American draft resisters, a bit left out of all this.

Entrances lead out of the Sorbonne courtyard onto passages and stairways, all of them plastered with notices. Almost every departmental office and classroom has been taken over by committees, organizers, planners, talkers: Committee of Action, Committee of Coordination, Committee of Occupation, Committee of Cultural Agitation, and the sinisterly named Committee of Rapid Intervention.

There seems a tendency for the movement to proliferate cells, activities, categories, subdivisions. I noticed that the Commando Poétique has its functions subdivided into “Tracts poétiques—affiches poétiques—création collective—publications à bon marché—liaisons interartistiques—Recherches théoretiques—commandos poétique revolutionnaires—praxis poétique revolutionnaire.”

THE POEMS I saw (Le Monde published a selection from them) seemed unoriginal—a mixture of surrealism with the socially conscious leftist writing of the Thirties, and a return to the political style of Eluard. The real poetry of the revolution is its slogans, politically revolutionary, but imaginative and witty. They are more revealing of the deepest impulses of the movement than most of the pamphlets and pronouncements. They all come together—as do all the finest impulses of the students—in the magnificently summary: “Imagination is Revolution.” One understands from the slogans why the students cannot get on with the great trade unions, political parties, official communism:

   Prenez vos désirs pour des réalités. Monolithiquement bête, le Gaullisme
est l’inversion de la vie. Ne changer pas d’employeurs
changer l’emploi de la vie. Vive la communication à bas la téle-
communication. Plus je fais l’amour plus je fais la
revolution plus je fais la revolution plus
je fais l’amour. Luttez dans la perspective d’une vie
passionante. Toute vue des choses qui n’est pas
étrange est fausse.

They equate revolution with spontaneity, participation, communication, imagination, love, youth. Relations between the students and young workers who share—or who are converted to—these values are of the first importance. They dramatize a struggle not between proletarian and capitalist interest so much as between forces of life and the dead oppressive weight of the bourgeoisie. They are against the consumer society, paternalism, bureaucracy, impersonal party programs, and static party hierarchies. Revolution must not become ossified. It is la revolution permanente.

One thing—perhaps the only one—which the Paris students have in common with the beatniks and hippies of the psychedelic generation is that they wish to live the life of the revolution even while they are taking action to bring it about. But they are opposed to drugs and other such eccentrically individualistic forms of self-realization: partly because their view of the revolution is of a community rather than of the individual, but still more because they have a sharp political awareness of the counter-revolutionary effects of drug-taking.

This May, for a few weeks at the Sorbonne, the students lived the communal life of sharing conditions, of arriving at all-important decisions by the method of “direct democracy”—that is to say by consulting the action committees of the movement (les bases) and not by imposing decisions from the top—of having meetings which are as far as possible spontaneous, with a different chairman for each meeting, resisting the “cult of personality.”

However, by the end of May, under pressure from government and police, attacked by the Communists and without support from the Confédération Générale of workers, the students had to reconsider their concept of organization. This they could not do without questioning “direct democracy.” A press conference at the Sorbonne on the first of June developed into a disagreement between Cohn-Bendit and the other student leaders as to whether organization for action and self-defense should arise spontaneously from discussions at les bases or should be imposed by the leaders. Cohn-Bendit thought that the dynamism of the movement should continue to come from the bases. His own words:

The only chance of creating revolutionary forms that will not become ossified (scelerosé) lies in waiting until a common purpose has been discovered among all the committees of action from discussing matters at the base.

His colleagues agreed on “spontaneity” as a principle but did not think that the circumstances left them much time for discussion in action committees. They pointed out that they had to decide on measures for “auto-defense” immediately. One of them, Weber, said that the committees were too disorganized and uncoordinated to be capable of auto-defense in the face of the very well organized Gaullist forces. The discussion about organization is crucial, because the danger inherent in too little organization is defeat by the Gaullist and communist forces outside the movement; while the danger of too much organization is defeat by loss of spontaneity from below. The demonstrations and marches, the barricades, were extraordinary examples of spontaneity with a minimum of organization. The undirected discussion at the Odéon Theatre, in which the chairman has to struggle with a tumultuous audience, succeed but do result in disorder and waste of energy. The same must be true, I suspect, of the committee of action. But I sympathize with Cohn-Bendit’s view that organization should not be imposed from above.

DURING the first half of May a good many Parisian intellectuals, as well as many students, seemed to think of the student revolt as part of a larger revolution which had already happened in France. Of course it is not that, and the realization that the university revolt is threatened has added urgency to the debate about “organization” and “direct democracy.” The students are reluctant to discuss the Bolsheviks and the anarchists of the Spanish Republic who also said they wanted direct democracy. Or, reminded of this, they take refuge in the idea that theirs is an unprecedented generation. To recall the failures of previous revolutions is to seem in their eyes patronizing, paternalistic. The London Times in an editorial pointed out as a weakness of the students that they did not appear to have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But they would not want to read it and if they did read it would find there nothing which they thought applied to their case.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print