Bonnie and I rushed to the window and stared out. Atop the shoulders of two muscular males sat a gaunt, longhaired man dressed in black. The two men transported their passenger across Boulevard Saint Michel toward Gilbert‘s. Protesters swarmed around the elevated figure as a sea of hands reached out, fingers extended, straining to touch the object of the adulation, to make contact with any part of him: his sweater, trousers, shoes, anything.
“Bonnie, who‘s the guy everybody‘s so worked up over?”
She glanced at me briefly before turning her eyes to the spectacle on the street. “Don‘t tell me you don‘t know?”
I glanced down at her. “OK, I won‘t, but I still don‘t know.”
“That‘s François, François the Incendiary. I thought everybody knew him.”
“Call me Mr. Nobody, because I don’t.”
“He‘s the leader of the student protest movement in France. When that guy speaks, demonstrators listen and act. Let‘s go outside and see what happens.” She headed for the door.
I grabbed her arm. “Why? To get caught in the middle of a riot?”
Suddenly, store lights flickered. “Ladies and gentlemen, Gilbert‘s is now closed,” a clerk shouted. “For the safety of all, management requests that you vacate the premises.” Customers inched toward the door, then stopped. “I must insist,” the clerk added, “all must leave.”
Outside, Bonnie and I filtered into a mass of chanting demonstrators. “François! François! François!” Voices were tides of sound, echoing up and down Boulevard Saint Michel. “François! François!”
“Bonnie, What the hell are we doing here in the middle of a mob? Let‘s get out, while we can.”
“Ah, come on, Paul.” She craned her neck to see over the people standing in front of us. “Don‘t be such a stuffed shirt. What are you so afraid of? I‘ve always wanted to hear François speak, just to hear for myself why students get so enthused by what he has to say. Let‘s listen.”
“François! François!” Herds of demonstrators swarmed down the boulevard. Others emerged from intersecting streets. “François!” Sidewalks fronting Gilbert‘s now overflowed. Necks craning, protestors clogged the thoroughfare, backing up traffic and enraging motorists.
“Have you people lost your damn mind? What‘s gotten into you?” one motorist yelled, leaning out his car window.
François dismounted from his porters and, amid choruses of cheers, leapt onto a vendor‘s table where, arms raised, he signaled for silence.
“Quiet!” someone yelled.
“Yeah. Why don't-cha?” someone added. “François is ready to speak.”
One of the leader's aides handed him a bullhorn, and he pressed its mouthpiece to his lips. Immediately, Boulevard Saint Germain transformed into a sepulcher: total silence. “Fellow revolutionaries,” the Incendiary bellowed, “Patriots of France,” he paused, the intermission accentuating silence like an exclamation point. “Hear my words.”
Cheers exploded, followed by a chain of chants: “François…François…François!” The speaker once more signaled for silence.
“Comrades,” he continued, “comrades.” Again, an explosion of cheers.
“Quiet, let him speak,” a man yelled.
“The time,” François said, “has come, the day, the hour; the moment is at hand! Not tomorrow, as the bureaucracy would have you believe, nor some unnamed future date. Fellow revolutionaries, now is the time when we must end once and for all the university‘s inequalities, dismantle its archaic bureaucracy and curricula and make known to the world our grievances.” With a raised fist, he shouted into the bullhorn, “Now! Now! Now!”
The crowd responded: “Now! Now! Now!” Beneath the din of the throng edged another sound, the wail of police sirens, but the resonance of approaching sirens didn‘t deter François. “We have not gathered here,” he extolled, “to capitulate!” His words were now fireballs of passion. “We shall not be moved!”
“Never!” demonstrators responded. “Never!”
“Nor shall we cower,” intoned the speaker.
“Never!” protestors replied.
“Or be intimidated by billy clubs.”
“Or tear gas!”
“No! No!” The crowd chanted louder and louder.
The screech of police vehicles slamming to a stop punctuated protesters' chants as officers with shields, nightsticks, and gas masks, poured from vans. “Form ranks!” barked the commander. “Double time!” Like automatons, lawmen scurried.
“The presence of policemen will not weaken our resolve,” François the Incendiary orated.
“No!” responded a chorus of frenzied voices.
Officers formed lines on the sidewalk across the street from Gilbert's. “This demonstration,” the commanding officer bellowed, “is unauthorized. You have sixty seconds to disperse.” No one moved. “Fifty-nine seconds.”