The eventful month of May 1968 will forever be regarded as a turning point in the recent history of France. The focal point throughout ...

May 1968, the barricades and the night Bordeaux became a battlefield

The eventful month of May 1968 will forever be regarded as a turning point in the recent history of France. The focal point throughout the troubled period was Paris but the unrest quickly spread throughout France. In Bordeaux the agitation culminated on the night of Saturday May 25th with a series of street battles that formed the city’s own “nuit des barricades”.

With the generous help of Sud Ouest journalist Marjorie Michel, who enabled me to view the newspaper’s coverage of that momentous night, I sought to reconstruct events as they unfolded and returned to the city’s hotspots and riot scenes… only to find them much quieter these days!

But before we delve into the Bordeaux events, it is perhaps best to give over a couple of paragraphs to the general context in France. The movement which brought the country to a standstill had begun with a series of student occupations in protest against capitalism, consumerism, traditional institutions and the political regime. This then spread to workers across all walks of life who called for better wages, improved working conditions and more empowerment.

Student movement figurehead,
Daniel Cohn-Bendit,
now a renowned politician.
Source: Wikipedia
This all led to intense conflict between students, workers and the unions on one side, and State authorities on the other. A nationwide strike and occupations throughout France paralysed the country for two continuous weeks. Across the various sectors, improved conditions generally went on to be obtained in negotiations between unions and the establishment. President De Gaulle eventually dissolved the National Assembly and called for new parliamentary elections in June. Violence quickly evaporated, workers went back to their occupations and, ironically, the Gaullist party came out of the crisis even stronger than before.

In Bordeaux, Sud Ouest dedicated whole pages to “l’évolution de la crise”, providing updates on the strikes across all sectors: banking, transport, retail, clothing, education, social security services, taxi drivers, aerospace engineers at Dassault… everyone had demands that had to be met and, while negotiations were in progress Sud Ouest reminded its readers that “on trouvera encore aujourd’hui les grands magasins fermés, des postes d’essence non approvisionnés, des bureau de tabac ne distribuant qu’un seul paquet de cigarettes, des rues encombrées de poubelles”. (Today once again, department stores will be closed, petrol pumps will be empty, tobacconists will only sell single packs of cigarettes and the streets will be strewn with rubbish.)

Such was the backdrop to a demonstration organised by the national student union UNEF on Saturday May 25th. There was already tension in the air in the city: two nights earlier there had been disturbances at the Grand-Théâtre where sit-in demonstrators had come face-to-face with concert-goers, and the night before there had been outbreaks of violence on Cours de l’Intendance.

The Saturday gathering saw between 4,000 and 5,000 people – students and workers – converging towards Place Saint-Michel around 5pm. The mood was laid-back, the sun was shining, banners were paraded good-humouredly and there were even a fair number of children along for the ride. The crowd winded its way up to Place de la Comédie and then across to Place Gambetta before moving down to Place Pey-Berland where they symbolically congregated outside the city hall, Palais Rohan. It was now early evening: 7:15pm.
Trouble first broke out at Palais Rohan, riot police surging down Rue des Remparts towards the city hall. The picture top right (source: was taken by Vincent Olivar, who was injured in the incidents. Bottom right is the same view today.
Some of the protesters opted to climb up the Palais Rohan walls to attach banners to the gates and railings, while others began rocking and banging the city hall’s monumental door. This triggered a sudden and unexpected surge from CRS riot police, who descended Rue des Remparts at top speed, using tear gas to disperse the crowd. Violent scenes ensued and demonstrators scattered in many directions, though most made a natural beeline for Cours Pasteur and the University’s Faculty of Literature building, with which we are now more familiar in its modern-day incarnation: Musée d’Aquitaine.
Then the Faculty of Literature, now Musée d'Aquitaine. On the right, people are pictured transporting cobblestones (source: In the background is the distinctive shopfront of a fancy dress store, as can also be seen bottom right.
Many demonstrators took refuge in the university building while police forces sought to block off the surrounding roads. Demonstrators themselves quickly set up their first barricades to stifle the authorities, using whatever they could get their hands on (the Rue du Maréchal-Joffre barricade was principally made out of broken market stalls used during a recent Foire aux Jambons). Paving stones were extracted from the surface of the road and people formed chains to pass the stones on to strategic locations. Many were used as weapons either at ground level, or else flung from the upper storeys and roof of the university building. The injured were evacuated to the Café des Arts on Cours Victor-Hugo.

Cours Victor-Hugo: Café des Arts, where the injured were tended to, and the multi-storey car park which was the scene of more violence.
Other barricades sprung up in the area, blocking off access from Place de la Victoire (where there was reportedly a substantial police presence), at various points along Rue Sainte-Catherine, and on Cours Victor-Hugo near to the covered market and car park. A small army of CRS riot police approached the car park but they were pelted with paving stones and other projectiles from the upper levels of the building. It was now 9:30pm.

Back on Cours Pasteur, two-way traffic was in full flow: paving stones were being taken into the building while desks and chairs were being taken out to be added to the escalating number of barricades. The Faculté building had itself become a war zone with paving stones scattered everywhere, while the air had become unbreathable on the main ground floor concourse given the amount of tear gas present, the impact of which was only slightly attenuated by the bucket-loads of water that had been poured on the floor. Bizarrely, in one of the lecture theatres, a girl sat at a piano and launched into an impromptu performance of Chopin waltzes for a small audience. Still the stones showered down on the police forces.   

The evening's events and hotspots, adapted from a map which featured in the May 27th 1968 issue of Sud Ouest.
At 1am, negotiations commenced in earnest between student spokespeople and high-level representatives of the Préfecture and Conseil Général. A truce was agreed: the demonstrators would relinquish their grip on the barricades, the faculty building and Victor-Hugo car park so long as the riot police let them depart free. The police backed off and a no man’s land formed on Cours Pasteur so that these instructions could be passed on to the demonstrators. Little by little, those who had spent the evening in the university building and Victor-Hugo car park exited peacefully.

Final sporadic outbursts of violence then broke out on Place de la Victoire as a final, compact group of demonstrators sparred with the authorities, but it would be little more than a footnote. Eight hours on from the initial incidents on Place Pey-Berland, the nuit des barricades had come to an end. In all, 109 people had been injured (40 demonstrators and 69 police), though none seriously. Ninety demonstrators were arrested over the course of the night.
Mayor Jacques Chaban-Delmas surveys the aftermath the following day on Rue Paul-Bert (source:, and the same scene today.

The next day, Mothering Sunday, a strange atmosphere hung over the city. As Sud Ouest reported, the city’s inhabitants had nowhere to go, no petrol to get there anyway, no sports events to attend and no TV to watch, so they spent their day on the previous night’s “battlefield” talking with others about their take on the events. They took in the sights of the half-burnt barricades, the broken window panes of the university building, and workmen swiftly hammering cobblestones back into the roads so that the streets could be used once again.

That Monday, mayor Jacques Chaban-Delmas issued a statement which was printed on the front page of Sud Ouest, acknowledging that Bordeaux had become a regrettable focus of public attention. He also noted that the peaceful demonstration had been undermined by the involvement of trouble-makers who had little or nothing to do with the city or the university: “Once again, irresponsible ringleaders have abused the fervour and enthusiasm of most young people.” Student representatives also condemned the demonstrations which “had been hijacked by ringleaders from a minority of irresponsible anarchists”.

Catherine Grenier's residence on Cours d'Albret.
Bordeaux, and France, did eventually get back on its feet. On Tuesday May 28th, Sud Ouest reported however that one person had not emerged unscathed: a 79-year-old woman named Catherine Grenier, who lived at number 77 Cours d’Albret, had been found dead in her bedroom by a neighbour. When the neighbour had met her for the last time on the Sunday morning, Mme Grenier had told her how much she had been affected by the previous night’s events. The stress may just have precipitated her passing.

  • The account of the Bordeaux nuit des barricades is based on a lengthy Sud Ouest report (published on May 27th 1968) that compiles the eye-witness testimonies of journalists François Latappy, J-C Maingot, Gérard Fiquemont, Maurice Fauré, Christian Morron, Claude Jouanny, Jacques Sylvain, Pierre Petit and Bernard Abbadie.
  • Big, big thanks to Sud Ouest’s Marjorie Michel for her support on this subject. 
  • Ce dossier est également disponible en français !
  • The INA website features this grainy footage of the Bordeaux nuit des barricades. The pictures mid-way up the page and at the top are stills from this report (click here if video does not display properly on your device):

    0 commentaires: