Autobiography & Memoir
Paris - May 1968
It was pleasantly warm that day in May. Trees blossomed and birds sang their flirtatious spring songs. Hues of different green smiled up at the bright light in corners of small hidden squares, climbing up white trellis attached to high walls. My favourite hideaway was the Place de Furstenberg, around the corner from Rue Jacob, in the heart of St Germain. I would sit on a bench listening to the down-and-outs debating philosophy and inhaling the calm of the morning.
It was about eleven. Madame Janin, busy changing her window display of wooden draught boards, carefully placing Kings and Queens on the Victorian Chess Board, waved as I passed her shop on my way to La Palette.
I noticed a gathering of longhaired students, some wearing denim flares, crochet tops and platform shoes, while others sported the usual black leather jackets. They were hovering on the corner of Rue de Seine with Jacques Caillot in front of my café. I pushed past to get to my usual table on the pavement. There were only six outside with two bistro red and beige cane chairs to each table. Two to the left of the entrance and four to the right. I sat on the left because it was easier to get into conversation with interesting persons unknown.
I sat watching the crowd as I sipped my espresso and dunked my crisp croissant, a la Francaise, into the black sensual hot liquid. 'What are all these students doing here?' I wondered. The old Parisian streets were so narrow that, as the noisy excitable crowd swelled, some of the students trod on my toes. I got up and moved inside to finish my morning breakfast ritual.
'What's all the excitement about, Gerard?' The Patron shrugged his broad shoulders and seemed in an abnormally sullen mood. More regulars came in, complaining the students were shouting and getting out of hand. Something serious was happening..
The Patron looked worried because there was hardly any room in the front part of the café. By now, the back room, usually empty at 11.30, was overflowing. His regulars were engulfed by people off the street escaping the growing mass of angry students who were, by now, prominently displaying red banners and flags.
I decided to leave but found I couldn't. I was trapped between the zinc bar and the human wall blocking the café entrance. I glanced at my new glittering Bueche Girod watch. The hands winked at me. They knew I had to get to the Restaurant des Beaux-Arts by Noon to meet someone special.
It would normally take five minutes. Up the Rue de Seine, second left into the Rue des Beaux-Arts. There, on the corner opposite the Arts School in the Rue Bonaparte. Being English, I was always on time but I could see from the window the crowd was spreading like ants up and down the street and, from past experience, I did not want to be another ant.
How I hated angry crowds. Last year I had accidentally been caught up in a Spanish workers' riot in front of the Town Hall in Barcelona. Just before the shops closed, I witnessed overturned burning cars and exploding Molotov cocktails. I had been trapped lying in darkness on the cool floor of an antique print shop for about three hours. The shouting and screaming outside was daunting. When all was quiet, the proprietor opened the iron gates and motioned me to flee via the winding back streets back to my hotel. Soon after that I got caught in a sudden human stampede of faceless raging beings running downhill and thrown to the ground losing my left shoe. No, I didn't want a replica of that dramatic experience a year later.
"District 6 Riot Branch?' I heard the Patron ask. I watched his facial expressions and hand gestures. "Gerard Le Vigne, Patron of La Palette here. What's this demonstration all about? It's getting out of hand here, in the Rue de Seine. Am I speaking to Inspector Maigret?' More gesticulations and shrugging and then, "No, I can't believe it! How many? What are you doing about that amount of students?" I watched as he digested the information. Silence, "'Where?" more silence, "Ca, alors!"
It transpired the students at the Sorbonne had taken over the building led by a German nicknamed 'Dany le Rouge' who had incited students to take action against the administration of the entire university system. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, his real name, was anti De Gaulle and had inspired students to march in the streets that day. They had been joined by art students to march to Les Beaux Arts. The streets at this junction were too narrow for the gendarmes to intervene. Trying to prevent a stampede, the police were lined up nearby, in the Quai Malaquais along the banks of the Seine.
I gave up the idea of lunch. The Patron made the decision to lock the door. 'This is an historic day.' he announced. 'It's the beginning of a Cultural Revolution. Let's celebrate. Drinks on the house!' We all cheered and toasted the students' courage shouting, "Liberte."
Events during May and early June escalated from what began as a small student gathering into a massive full scale attack against the De Gaullist Right Wing Regime. Students, backed by Jean Louis Barraut and other actors, would take over the Teatre National Populaire (TNP), young philosophers, such as Levy, would voice their opinions and workers would flood into Paris together with mercenaries (Katangais) from Katanga (Belgium Congo) called in by political agitators. A cultural revolution had ignited.
I would read about these events, as they happened in Le Monde, Paris Match and the satire magazine Le Canard Enchaine. The Art School would become the centre of activity. Students would take over the building and lock the massive ornate gates. A whole art department (Atelier Populaire) would be set up to run off thousands of co-operative broad sheets using simple silkscreen and stencilling techniques. The designs and slogans would be seen all over walls throughout the capital.
I was after all an Outsider, a mere observer, but I sympathised with their plight for freedom of thought and speech and an end to university red tape and bureaucracy.
After a month or so the revolution ended as quickly as it had begun. The events passed into the annals of French social and political history. But the implications of what had happened carried on throughout university circles. Discussions continued in Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore and other Left Bank intellectual cafes for years to come.
I was glad to have witnessed that first day and felt the intensity of the moment. Thirty seven years later, these crude posters are to be found in museums such as the Smithsonian in Washington and the Bibliotheque National, as part of an important Cultural Revolution. Today the event is simply referred to as 'Paris, May 1968' I even had an original poster book of some of the artwork in my commercial picture library and archive Retrograph Archive in London.
Published in Thirty Seven Stories, Biscuit Jar publication, Brighton 2005 page 26 has a misspelling of my name!!