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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.