It’s a hot Saturday evening in May, and the Latin Quarter feels restful, bordering on soporific. This is picture-postcard Paris, a district of café terrasses spilling out onto steep, yellow-hued streets, with medieval seminaries and specialist bookshops catering to students from the nearby Sorbonne University—groups of whom perch on the curbs, studying for their summer exams. The closest you get to civil disturbance comes courtesy of the tourists jostling for photo opportunities outside the Pantheon. Yet 50 years ago this month, these streets were the stage of one of the most dramatic confrontations to have taken place in western Europe since 1945.
In May 1968, thousands of students marched on the area and occupied the university campus, sparking a direct clash with the forces of law. By the middle of the month, this scenic corner of the French capital had been transformed into something resembling a war zone. Where now the smells of upmarket bistrot cuisine dominate the air, the Latin Quarter of May 1968 saw plumes of smoke rising from vehicles that had been set on fire, intermingling with clouds of tear gas, making it difficult to breathe. Students yanked cobblestones from the roads, hurling them at the ranks of riot police charging down the Rue de Gay-Lussac. On street corners, they struck up makeshift barricades hastily assembled from pieces of furniture, burnt-out cars, cobbles, and storm drain grates. Political slogans were splashed onto every wall in sight, their messages ranging from the crude to the absurd: “SOYEZ RÉALISTES: DEMANDEZ L’IMPOSSIBLE” (“BE REALISTIC: DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE”), commanded one. Quite what “the impossible” was, few were sure.
Indeed, it’s difficult to explain exactly why the students of Paris took to the streets in 1968, less still what they aimed to achieve. With the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, the protests resemble an inarticulate howl of generational anguish. Thirty years after the end of World War II, France was still a deeply conservative country smarting from humiliating defeats in bloody and pointless colonial conflicts in Indochina and Algeria. “France cannot be France without greatness,” the country’s war-hero president Charles de Gaulle had written in the 1950s, before taking office. Even now that it had lost its global power, he had a plan to restore its pride. Under de Gaulle’s watch, the state embraced a drive toward market prosperity whereby the French citizen would become a model consumer, dutifully contributing to the growth of the economy, and thus the spiritual health of the nation. That, at least, was the theory.