by Alison Hird
Article published on the 2008-05-11 Latest update 2008-05-14 11:48 TU
“We went into May 68 young and inexperienced," says Jean-Claude Mounet, who was a 26-year-old lieutenant with the CRS riot police when he was dropped off on the Boulevard St Germain in the Latin Quarter on 6 May. “It was the first time the CRS had gone into Paris to maintain law and order. We knew it was hotting up and I admit we were nervous.”
He recalls the violence that reached its height on 10 May, the so-called Night of the Barricades.
“Our instructions were to push the students back and avoid deaths on either side," he says. "We put up barricades at 8 pm but weren’t given the order to charge until 2 am and then it lasted four hours. It was urban warfare, with fires, clouds of tear gas, Molotov cocktails and paveing-stones flying everywhere. Even grenades. It was awful.”
Like many CRS, Mounet was young and inexperienced.
“It was the first big violent conflict I’d seen”, he says. "We were used to manning official outings, a few agricultural and workers' demos. Nothing like this”.
They were also ill-equipped and inappropriately dressed. Nowadays the CRS look like Robocop, covered in body armour but not in 1968.
“We went in to maintain law and order looking almost cuddly: plastic helmets, battle dress made out of cotton, shirt and tie," says Mounet. "We went in wearing ties!”
Photos taken at the time show the CRS in a far-from-favourable light, emphasising a heavy-handed, if not brutal, response. Rumours circulated that students were being beaten up in custody and that young women were touched up in police vehicles.
Mounet admits a few police may have got out of hand by singling out particular demonstrators and that after six hours of waiting to charge, a certain amount of tension was waiting to let rip. But he insists these were isolated cases not general practice.
“Even after this famous Night of the Barricades when we thought our Republican institutions might fall," he says. "It came close… we showed sang-froid, considering the violence we faced. We always tried to do our best to avoid excesses.”
Mounet recognises the student revolt was by no means all bad. It led to a change in mentality and ultimately influenced the way he brought up his own two children.
“The authoritarian approach to child-rearing changed, we were more open, closer to our kids”, he says. Yet, he always knew which side of the barricades he was on. “I agreed with their ideas but not their methods, not at all."
Mounet retired in 2000 but May 68 still haunts him.
“The violence has left its mark and I think it always will," he says. "I was only 26.”