About the Book
Patricia Taylor Wells’ plans to spend a summer in Paris studying French at the Sorbonne came close to being cancelled due to political unrest throughout France. In May 1968, there were numerous student protests that resulted in the Sorbonne and other universities being shut down. Workers joined the students and the strikes that followed came close to collapsing the government. After the elections in June, the resurgence had been reverted, and Patricia’s teacher confirmed that their trip had been approved. Little did she know that the political unrest was far from over.
IF I HAD fully understood or known what was going on in Paris in May 1968, I would have probably opted out of going altogether. Not only did I not have the immediate access to world events we have today via Internet and cell phone, but there was no television in my dorm room at college, and I rarely watched the TV available in the common room. I never read the newspaper and the radio stations I listened to broadcast only a limited amount of news if any at all. As a result, I wasn’t fully aware of all the unrest in my own country, let alone what was happening in France.
It seems too simple to think what began as a protest about overcrowding and the lack of coeducational dormitories on a campus outside of Paris would fling open the door of discontent to such a degree across the entirety of France that it nearly shut the country down altogether. History teaches us, though, that change often stems from a single, unassuming event or idea which resonates with the masses and morphs into an unpredictable outcome. Rosa Parks, a young black activist, refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955 comes to mind. Her refusal to obey Alabama’s segregation laws led to her arrest for civil disobedience. Who could have known that one day she would be remembered as the first lady of civil rights? Or that chests of tea being thrown overboard in the Boston Harbor in 1773—an act of defiance against the British tax on tea—would be the catalyst for the American Revolution.
The events that spurred the biggest disruption in French Society since the storming of the Bastille in 1789 then should come as no surprise. On March 22, 1968 eight students broke into the Dean’s office at Nanterre University, a small, overcrowded campus on the outskirts of Paris. It was built in the 1960s as an extension of the Sorbonne to accommodate a student population that had tripled over a ten year period. The occupation was in protest of the arrest of several students during an anti-Vietnam War rally that had taken place in Paris. The activists managed to occupy the Dean’s office for six days. After the police showed up and surrounded the campus, the students published their demands and vacated the building. From that point on, the protesters were known as the March 22 Movement. Later on, the leaders of the occupation were ordered to appear before the college’s disciplinary board on May 6. Among them was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a twenty-two-year-old sociology student who, prior to March 22, was a member of a small group of about twenty-five activists who called themselves les enragés (angry people)—a name that dates back to the French Revolution. By the end of March, the group had grown to about a thousand members and by May, les enragés boasted over ten million participants.