Passport to the World over 64 years. Pages from my Travel Diary

Paris - Friday the 10th. of May, 1968 during the Student Riots

On the 3rd. of May in 1968, at about 1600 ( 4PM ) police surrounded the Sorbonne, the authorities worried about the behaviour of massing students on the campus.

Some students were arrested, and the Sorbonne closed down for only the second time in its 700 year history, the previous time being in 1940, after the Nazis had taken over in Paris.

Photo of Students defiantly waving a red flag at the Sorbonne
Photo of Students defiantly waving a red flag at the Sorbonne

On the 6th. of May, students and the police had clashed in the streets of Paris, official figures gave 422 arrested and 345 police injured.

It was against this backdrop I left Heathrow for Paris by a British Airway's flight on Friday the 10th. of May in 1968, the pilot, on take off, stating he was uncertain what lay ahead at Orly airport.

In Paris, I was due to meet with a Director of La Cellophane, an industrial giant in France that produced cellulose film, much in demand in the flexible packaging industry, particularly as a substrate for carrying polyethlene and other additions so that a composite material might be turned into a packaging medium for bacon, cooked meats and other food products.

Australia did not have a cellulose film manufacturer, a demand of about 10,000 tons per year was needed to sustain a plant, and in Australia the current usuage did not warrant a single cellulose film manufacturer. All needed supplies being imported from UK, France or North America.

My second task in France was to visit Lyon, to meet with the holder of a patented flexible pack called Doypak, it stood upright on a gusseted bottom. In Australia, my company WR Grace, held the options for this package, and I had to decide whether to take up this option or let it lapse.

We landed at Orly to be met with a totally deserted airport, no customs, no immigration, no taxis, no money changing facilities, nothing. Fortunately, my La Cellophane Director had driven here to meet me, but he had bad news, strikes had forced the closure of his plant, normally such an enterprise has to run 24 hours a day to produce its product of cellulose film.

The name Cellophane, is in fact a registered name of this French Company La Cellophane, hence my using the term cellulose film.

I was not going to do anything productive in Paris, at least from a work viewpoint.

My host had booked me into a very expensive hotel on the Champs des Elysees, after depositing me, he bade farewell, promising to collect me next evening for dinner.

At this stage in French history, General de Gaulle had ruled France over the past 10 years, at this time he was absent on a visit to Roumania.

Paris was a shut down metropolis, no public transport, banks closed, factories closed across the country, the trade unions calling for a General Strike next Monday the 13th. of May. I decided to make for the Sorbonne and see for myself what was going on there and around the Boulevard St Michel.

Thousands of students had marched through Paris today, and I walked to the Sorbonne, and was able to wander about, it was an absolute mess, piled up rubbish, students camped all over the place. I talked to some who spoke some English, my French too rough to speak, but some I could comphrend. They wanted reform on subjects taught, with an input to the content, more money from the Government for education and the crowding of campuses to be addressed.

A small cafe crouching close to the Sorbonne wall yielded up coffee and a croissant, I sat and soaked up the feeling of anger and frustration in the air.

Outside on the Boulevard St Michel, students had pulled up the paving stones to build barricades, adding street signs and cars to give them extra height. Both sides of this Grand Boulevard the students were lined up to ten deep, shouting slogans, singing, chanting, all in all a fearsome sight. Into the roadway ventured some of the hated Flics, in their Police cars, now the students slowly and relentlessly closed in from both sides, the path for the police cars vanishing, the cars were overturned and some set alight, absolute mayhem!

Police reinforcements arrive, a pitched battle ensued, tear gas used, time for me to slip away from this scene of riot and bloodshed, and return to the relative quiet of my hotel. Many arrests had been made, and many were injured from both police and students.

Page from the Sun, Doctor treats injured student inside the Sorbonne
Page from the Sun, Doctor treats injured student inside the Sorbonne

This visit was made memorable by the student riots, the General strike on the following Monday, and the malaise gripping Paris at this specific time.

De Gaulle went to the polls in 1969, to be reelected with an increased majority, I think the general public getting fed up with strikes, and the run down effect it had on day to day existence, but he soon decided to give away politics and retired.

Post Script.
By chance I was to visit Paris again in 1993, exactly 25 years after to the actual day.

For old times sake, I made my way to the same little cafe close by the Sorbonne walls, once again I partook of coffee and a croissant, I had remembered that heady day of the 10th. of May in 1968, but I was all alone in that remembrance in this particular cafe.

No doubt we had all grown a lot older and perhaps a little more tolerant.

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