Within the walls of the idyllic Reid Hall, which once served as the academic center for a number of graduate and undergraduate American university groups in Paris, Smith students were busy making their year in France a memorable one. The year was 1968, and Smithies had been enriching their academic experience by participating in the Junior Year Abroad program for more than four decades. Though most likely embarked on the journey expecting to improve their French or gain first-hand appreciation for another culture, few would have anticipated bearing witness to events which would later be printed in history books. For beyond the tranquility of Reid Hall’s picturesque courtyard, excitement and turmoil brought on by students not unlike themselves had brought the city to a standstill. Sometimes, a picture cannot convey the whole story.
On May 10, 1968, days of student unrest in Paris reached a fever pitch: an estimated 20,000 student demonstrators had accumulated at the Sorbonne (the former University of Paris). As daylight faded, something changed: rather than gathering their belongings and disbanding for the night, students gathered rocks for launching at the police and began erecting a barricade of overturned cars, a monument to their steadfast commitment to the cause. Once given permission to launch an assault, police forces set off an hours-long, brutal struggle, during which hundreds sustained injuries as “passers-by as well as demonstrators were beaten by the police.”
Though the streets were cleared briefly, the crisis intensified. Political supporters of the movement’s leftist demands launched a march of solidarity with the students, who reoccupied the Sorbonne. Battles with police continued. Millions of workers hung up their uniforms and declared a strike. A week later, France was essentially closed down by the threat of revolution.
Twenty-five students enrolled in Smith’s Junior Year Abroad program in Paris were caught in the chaos of the revolution during the 1967-1968 academic year, a year which, according to the “Report on the Junior Year Abroad” from the Office of the Registrar, “progressed smoothly enough […] until May when the student uprisings and strikes in Paris and France caused some inconvenience but no serious danger to the group.” Though the students were first permitted to finish their exams, all were urged to leave the country via emergency transportation and funds. Students were also implored, as the report continues, “to use good judgment, caution, and restraint and were instructed not to go into the Latin Quarter,” where many riots were taking place. A letter from program director Andrée Demay takes on a tone of reassurance, stating that “[t]here is no panic whatever” and, regarding her students, that they “are not in a mood to expose themselves to danger.”
Eventually, though not until after Smith students had evacuated, the crusade presenting such danger began to lose momentum as labor strikes were gradually abandoned, students were formally evicted from the Sorbonne, and resistance to anarchist revolution diminished support among non-student groups. In a memo received by Smith President Thomas Mendenhall from the Information Service on Study Abroad, Vice President Harry Epstein acknowledges that, although “the government nearly fell as a result of the student revolt,” the effort had “pretty much run out of steam by early June.” Despite apparent defeat, perhaps amplified by the reelection of French President Charles de Gaulle, some reforms were spurred by the movement, having encouraged French society to employ introspection in reassessing itself and its values.
As the 50th anniversary of the protests approaches, we remember a bold endeavor which, according to a New York Times remembrance of the 40th anniversary, “did not aim at human perfectibility but only at imagining that life could really be different and a whole lot better.”
Although the Smith Juniors in Paris do not appear to have taken part in the protests alongside their French classmates, they bore witness to a branch of one of only a handful of truly global efforts for social change.
Junior Year Abroad Program, Smith College Archives, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Paris files 1927-, Box 1132.
Junior Year Abroad Program, Smith College Archives, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Association of Former Juniors in France records, Box 1133 and 1134.
Office of President Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, Smith College Archives, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Series III: Academic Programs, Box 2 & 4.
“Protests Mount in France.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/protests-mount-in-france
Steinfels, Peter. “Paris, May 1968: The Revolution That Never Was.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 May 2008.
Amanda Carberry ’21 is a prospective Government major with a strong interest in languages, the World War II era, international human rights, and the study of history as it relates to foreign policy today. She hopes to travel and study abroad in the near future. She is also an avid writer, having self-published a novella, and looks forward to having the opportunity to refine her writing abilities during her years at Smith.