Our newest contributor, Michael Kopelman, is a distinguished British neuropsychiatrist. Almost exactly fifty years ago, while in Paris studying French at the Alliance Française, he became caught up in the student riots. We asked him to give our readers the perspective of a Brit who experienced these historic events at close range. His account follows below.
Fifty years later, Michael Kopelman is Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychiatry at King’s College London. He formerly ran a clinical service at St Thomas’s Hospital, London. His research has been on the neuropsychology of memory disorders, including aspects of autobiographical memory and confabulation.
Paris, 1968: It was chilly in March, but the sun came out in April, and Paris blossomed. In May, the city erupted. I was studying French at L’Alliance Française in Boulevard Raspail. I was in my ‘gap year’ (though the term was not then used) staying, together with a school friend, at the top of a small hotel at the crossroads between Montparnasse and the St Michel - a superb location, but the room was cheap because (in those days) the hotel lacked a lift and we were staying for several weeks.
Walking along Boulevard Saint-Germain one afternoon at about 3 p.m. [from subsequent histories, I think that this must have been Thursday 2nd, or possibly Wednesday 1st, May], we heard shouts ahead of us, whistles, and drumming that appeared to be coming from the St Michel. As we approached, the noise became louder and, as the St Michel came into view, we saw that marchers were processing from North to South towards the Sorbonne, waving banners and flags, and blowing whistles and horns. Soon the marchers were gone, the sounds becoming more distant, but, as we turned into the St Michel, we could hear still the marchers ahead of us. Suddenly, there was what sounded like an explosion, the shouting intensified; there was screaming and the thumps of running. It was not clear what was going on ahead, but it sounded as if the marchers had clashed with the police. Then, out of nowhere, we were enveloped in a fog of tear gas. Our eyes were sore, we coughed and spluttered, but we bent our heads down and proceeded forward till it had cleared. As we emerged, we found ourselves at another junction. The marchers had disappeared. The police stood in the middle of the crossroads in their helmets, truncheons and shields, shouting angry commands at passers-by and observers, a large mingling crowd, now mainly elderly people and tourists. Across the road, we saw our French teacher from l’Alliance Française, but she was too distant in the melange for us to speak to her.
The next morning, as we walked through the Luxembourg gardens, all was utterly calm. Another beautifully sunny day. There was no sign that anything unusual had happened the day before, but the events of the previous day were the ‘hot’ topic of discussion at L’Alliance Francaise that morning. There were more protests that afternoon and evening, and when we arrived at L’Alliance the next time, we saw that the iron gates to the entrance were closed and chained with padlocks. A placard on the gates read: ‘À cause des événements recents, l’école est fermée aujourd’hui’. The school remained ‘fermée’ for the rest of the month.
photos by Michael Kopelman
Paris -May 1968
That Friday evening was eventful. Early in the evening, there was shouting and drumming from the sports centre/student accommodation two doors to the right of us, as students taunted the police who had amassed outside the building. The students started to throw projectiles down at the police, who angrily threw them back, and we heard the smashing of glass. This lasted an hour or more. Later that night, we heard the shouts and bangings of the protesters, who had lit a bonfire in the middle of the crossroads between Montparnasse and the St Michel. From our room, we could observe the students watching the fire excitedly, singing and chanting, until the approach of police sirens. The police arrived, attempted to put out the fire (which was now huge), and then stood in line passively observing the fire until it died away. Eventually, the police departed, but we were awakened several times that night, as this cycle (students starting a fire, then fleeing, the police arriving and attempting to put it out) repeated itself twice more during the course of the night.
During the next few days and weeks, the police massively over-reacted to what had commenced as relatively minor protests – charging at groups of students with their heavy batons, themselves protected by their Romanesque shields and helmets. Onlookers were arrested (including many foreigners and elderly people), and taken off in black police vans, which were everywhere to be seen. The entrance to the Sorbonne was sealed off by a line of police wielding their truncheons. All this fanned the flames of protest. L’Odeon was seized by protesters, and became the forum for ideological debate and revolutionary declamation. The cobbled streets were torn up, and the cobbles piled on to street barricades. In the mornings, burnt-out cars were seen on the side-streets. Trade unions joined the protesters, culminating in a general strike in which two million people marched down Boulevard Saint-Michel, observed by two English ex-schoolboys from their hotel balcony.
One day, walking down the St Michel, we found ourselves in the middle of another demonstration. People were milling around, holding posters and placards, shouting and blowing whistles in the middle of a busy crossroad. Then the police appeared to the north, carrying their batons, bearing their shields and helmets, eyes covered with masks. They grouped themselves together, then charged southward down Boulevard Saint-Michel, and we found ourselves in the middle of a street battle beneath the blossoming Parisian trees. I pulled out my Yashica-Mat, and photographed a policeman as he pulled his truncheon back behind his head, about to smash it down on a young man, who held up his arm limply in self-defence as he tried to flee. All around, young people were running, some with head in hands, as the police advanced with angry determination. Just after I had taken the shot, I myself was confronted by a red-faced policeman, screaming at me to hand over my camera, and gesticulating towards a black police van, which I remember as being located off to my right [or is this detail a confabulation in my memory?]. I knew perfectly well what he was saying but, as he grew angrier, I kept repeating in English: “I’m English. I don’t understand!” Fortunately, after what seemed like several minutes, but was probably less than a minute, he let me go. As I resumed my walk briskly southward towards Montparnasse, I experienced tingles of relief, as I left the shouting and screaming behind me.
photos by Michael Kopelman
Michael D Kopelman
|Richard Vinen, 2018||Johan Kugelberg, 2011|