Le Mans, 1972 by Boz

I jumped off the bus at Place de la République. Here I was: back for the first time in thirty years. I was reluctant to return but business is business. I expected to find Le Mans much changed after thirty years and it was. I wandered around the streets and squares. I love France but this city holds horrifying memories for me. As I walked around, unable to recognize anything, I felt more courageous. Using the map I picked up at the Syndicat d’Initiative, I found my way to the Market Square. Today, it was as busy as that day thirty years ago. The place was full of colour and noise and the smells of a hundred fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. Costers were shouting and customers busy filling shopping bags. I thought I’d hang about here for a bit and have a cup of coffee before shooting off for my meeting. I might even get my laptop out and do some preparation.

I walked towards a busy café on the corner and realized with a start that it was the café where we used to meet all those years ago. It had hardly changed. It was still milling with people talking, laughing and drinking. The place was packed with university students and my mind was whisked back to the 1970s when I was here before. This is where we had enjoyed so many happy times and this is where I cradled Jean-Paul’s head in my lap as he lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered.

It had all started so light-heartedly. I was travelling through France with a school-friend, Jackie. We had stopped off at Le Mans to visit some friends at the University and were made to feel so welcome, that we decided to hang about for a bit. It was during the closing stages of the Vietnam War and in the universities all over France there were regular meetings, demonstrations and marches. The walls were covered with political posters. On that day in April 1972, we planned to take part in a march through Le Mans.

The day started with a blast of a car horn outside the flat we were sharing with our student friends. Roland and Jean-Paul were waiting in Roland’s little Citroen 2 CV. We set out for a wood on the outskirts of Le Mans. Off we went, all tightly packed into the little 2 CV. On the way we stopped off at a couple of shops and picked up the essentials of a good picnic: baguette, cheese, tomatoes and wine. The car was left at the side of the road and we walked through the woods looking for somewhere to sit and have our picnic. We needed plenty of space, because we were going to paint our placards for the march.

We soon found a beautiful spot where the sun slanted through the trees. We sat in the woods, we four, two French boys, Jackie and me. We set out a blanket on the grass and spread out what we brought for our picnic. We poured the wine into tumblers we’d brought along and clinked glasses and said “santé!” When we finished our picnic, we smoked untipped Gitanes. The beautiful, toasty smoke, like Turkish coffee, was drawn deep into pink, young lungs.

Roland had long curly hair and wore a blue and white striped tea-shirt and a red neck scarf. We all laughed at him. He looked so typically French, but also like a pirate, a highwayman: the quintessential charismatic gypsy boy. Jean-Paul also had long hair: we all wore our hair long in those days. He was more serious, more introverted. He sat with his guitar and the cigarette at the corner of his lips. He strummed and hummed and soon we were singing: Brassens and Brel under the trees. He was the most politically engaged of us all. Jackie was laughing, happy, free. Long straight, blond hair and blue eyes, petite, and athletic, she was what the French call a ‘gamine’. She wasn’t interested in politics, She understood and loved people and felt the communal swell that moved us all at that time.

Then Roland went back to the car and brought back lengths of wood and card. It was only then that we started to talk about the afternoon’s demonstration. We tried to think up different slogans for our placards. I wrote “SOLIDARITE INDOCHINE” on mine. Then we nailed the card to the wood. We smoked more cigarettes and drank wine as we worked. Once finished, drowsy with the wine, we talked quietly. Normally talkative, we were unusually quiet. We looked at the gestetnered map again, its faint blue spidery ink lines barely discernable, but we knew the route and anyway there would be thousands of us, today, all marching together, chanting our slogans in unison.

There was something quiet and reflective about the occasion. It wasn’t fear, more like the kind of apprehension that actors feel before walking on stage. I joined in as usual but the whole thing seemed slightly surreal. Perhaps it was the light through the trees spotlighting our little group. It was like a small theatre. My mind’s eye was looking down at us from the trees’ canopy. I felt the tears well up in my eyes.

I heard myself say, “Don’t go! Please don’t go!”

“Eddie, are you Ok?” Their faces turned towards me: warm, concerned.

We drove back into town and, joining some more friends, walked to the place the march was to start. Soon we were lined up and all facing in the same direction. We started to march. The march set off with light-hearted camaraderie. Most of the students carried homemade placards shouting anti-war, anti-Nixon and anti-Pompidou slogans. We stood around, shaking hands, slapping backs, kissing. We shouted at the tops of our voices. Roland and Jackie were hand-in-hand in front of Jean-Paul and me.

We turned into the Market Square, into the bright lowering sun. The square was empty now, the stalls and people of the morning long gone. Blinded by the sun, we saw nothing, but our ears were suddenly assaulted by tribal drumming. Shading our eyes we could see ranks upon ranks of uniformed, helmeted, armed policemen. The march stopped and fell silent.

“CRS!” The initials were loudly whispered from the front to the back of the marchers.

“CRS? What is that?” I asked Roland.

“The French riot police!”

We started chanting again, but louder and waving our banners. The CRS were marching down the side streets on either side of the square: slowly surrounding the marchers on three sides. There was nowhere to go but back. Suddenly, without warning they charged: banging truncheons against their shields. Then, as they made contact with the marching students, they attacked with venom and hatred. Why so much hatred? Some people at the front of the march stood firm but eventually they fell. The CRS came forward, rank by rank. Some students panicked and ran back into the crowd. There was total chaos.

Roland linked arms with me on one side and Jackie on the other. In front of us was Jean-Paul. He stood transfixed with a strange expression his face.

“Je ne comprend pas: I don’t understand”, he said.

His body was jerked to the left and the right as running students shoved their way past him on each side, but his head remained facing straight forward. Suddenly, a shadow fell over him and he was face to face with a helmeted, armour-clad member of the CRS.

“Pourquoi: Why?” Jean-Paul almost whispered.

Towering over us, through the visor you could see the hatred on the man’s face. He hesitated for a while, then, like an automaton raised his arm and truncheon, spat out the word “ordure” and brought it down onto Jean-Paul’s temple. Jean-Paul crumpled like a rag doll in front of us and lay still, a red wound marking the site of the contact. A trickle of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth. The world stood still too, as the policeman pushed past us, separating us so easily. But we had eyes only for Jean-Paul: soft, gentle Jean-Paul.
As quickly as it started, the police charge was over. There were bodies everywhere. Broken and torn placards littered the floor. In corners of the square students were being herded into black vans. We half carried, half dragged Jean-Paul to the café. We bathed his face with water. Eventually a doctor arrived and he was taken from us. At the hospital he was in a coma for a month and then slipped away, we three around his bed…

I awoke from my reveries to find the tears trickling down my cheeks.

I heard myself say, “Don’t go! Please don’t go!”

“Eddie, are you Ok?” Their faces turned towards me: warm, concerned.

But there was nobody there. I finished my coffee, picked up my briefcase and left Le Mans forever.


Fragments by Boz


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