Students Riot, Battle Police in Paris Protest
A massive march by high school students calling for education reforms, including more security in schools, erupted into some of the worst street violence in more than 20 years here Monday as groups of demonstrators looted stores, burned cars and battled police on a Paris bridge.
Officials said 52 people were arrested and 104 police officers were injured, mostly in a confrontation with rock-throwing demonstrators on the Pont d’Alma, one of the main bridges across the Seine in a fashionable neighborhood of central Paris. An unknown number of demonstrators were also injured, according to police.
Witnesses said the bridge battle lasted for nearly an hour before police were able to disperse a crowd of several thousand demonstrators with truck-mounted water cannon and salvos of tear gas.
The march, by an estimated 100,000 students and other youths drawn to the city from the working-class Paris suburbs, was part of a month-old national movement by French lycee students who want more funding for education, better facilities and more security officers in classroom buildings.
Encouraged to voice their demands by French President Francois Mitterrand--who last week announced that “the young should be listened to when they say what they want today and what kind of world they would like tomorrow"--students also held rallies Monday in the cities of Marseilles, Lyons, Nantes, Clermont-Ferrand and Mulhouse.
The Paris demonstration began peacefully with students massing on a drizzly afternoon at the Place de la Bastille, birthplace of the French Revolution in 1789.
After passing in orderly fashion through areas of the Latin Quarter, where university students and workers battled police for several weeks in the famous 1968 student movement here, the march reached the southern Paris neighborhood of Montparnasse. There, several hundred looters broke ranks and invaded the large Galeries Lafayette department store branch at the base of the 67-story Montparnasse Tower skyscraper, breaking windows and stealing clothing.
The march became more violent as it headed north toward the Seine on its route to the Avenue des Champs Elysees, the broad Right Bank boulevard at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe where the demonstration was to end.
On the curving Rue Saint Dominique in one of Paris’ most expensive neighborhoods, looters broke into clothing stores, stealing shoes, jeans and other items. Cafes, grocery stores and other businesses were left mostly untouched by the looters, many of whom covered their faces with scarves and ski masks.
“These weren’t students who broke into our store,” complained clothing store owner Olivier Kramarz, 26, whose youth-oriented boutique was emptied by looters. “They were just casseurs “ -- demonstrators who destroy property.
As darkness fell in the French capital, Police Chief Pierre Verbrugghe decided to prevent the marchers from crossing the Seine to the Right Bank termination point. Police set up a blockade on the Pont d’Alma, and several hundred helmeted, shield-bearing riot police lined up at the entrance to the bridge. When the demonstrators saw the police, they began to hurl paving stones, building bricks and Molotov cocktails at them.
“It was a full-fledged battle,” said Chris Johns, 20, a Canadian student at the nearby American University of Paris who was in class when the demonstration moved down Avenue Bosquet toward the Alma bridge.
“When the students saw they were trapped between lines of police,” Johns said, “they really went crazy.” Cars parked on the broad, tree-lined street along the Seine were overturned and burned. Glass-sided bus stops were smashed, and anti-police slogans were spray-painted on nearby buildings.
Student leaders blamed police for the violence on the bridge.
One of the main student groups, the Federation of Independent and Democratic Lycee Students, issued a statement asking, “Why, when the demonstration was authorized to go to the Champs Elysees, did the police chief stop it at Pont d’Alma?”
The students also complained that police did nothing to break up non-student elements who followed the march through the streets and then broke away to loot stores and burn cars.
Police were criticized last week for not intervening as some youths demonstrating outside the French Parliament building wrecked a restaurant and several other sites. However, Interior Minister Pierre Joxe had ordered the police to show restraint in confronting the demonstrators.
The high school movement, which began four weeks ago in the Paris suburbs after a student was raped in the bathroom of a lycee , has caught the French government by surprise. There have been dozens of student marches and rallies, most of them peaceful. On Nov. 5, an estimated 150,000 students took part in marches nationwide.
Many of the student protesters are from relatively low-income families, and many are children of immigrants. They accuse the government of ignoring the needs of urban schools and complain of drug trafficking, theft and extortion on school grounds.
French Education Minister Lionel Jospin, whose ambitions to succeed Mitterrand as president have been hurt by the protests, has attempted unsuccessfully to placate the students by offering to raise the national education budget by 9%, bringing it to $43 billion. But student leaders have said that such funding would take years to show results.
At the height of Monday’s protest, about 20 students met separately with Mitterrand and Jospin and said afterward that they received a sympathetic hearing.
Following the meetings, Jospin promised that an “emergency plan” to improve education and safety in the schools would be put into effect, but he provided no details. He also said more discussions with student leaders would be held today.