“This is Robert Trout in Paris with a dimension on that popular pastime, rioting”

Robert Trout wasn’t a fan of the Parisian students who resisted and persisted in May 1968, nor of the police with whom they tussled. Together, they made his grocery man late and closed his favorite restaurants. The sting of tear gas made getting home a chore — you had to cover your face “like the bad guy, the bandit in an old style Western movie,” as he put it to his radio listeners. And that was if one could get home. Once during “Mai ’68,” Trout was stuck in Paris traffic for so long the people in front of him started playing chess on the hood of their car.

Trout’s press pass for an international conference in Paris, 1968. Robert Trout Papers.

For several weeks in May, Paris (above and below, from clippings in Trout’s papers) saw pitched street battles between students hurling stones and police firing tear gas canisters. Hundreds of students were arrested, injured or both amid a constant churn of demands for social and political change. Trout’s apartment was opposite the Sorbonne university, a hotbed of militant protest. Such agitation was, as Trout wryly suggested, something of a French pastime. What made “Mai ’68” different was the decision of the trade unions to make common cause with the students. As American and North Vietnamese delegates met for peace talks in Paris, the city ground to a halt. By the end of the month, 10 million French workers were on strike.

Damage from riot and protest activity. Paris, France, May 1968

Crusty establishment types feared communist revolution, but Trout wasn’t convinced. He was a man of calm demeanor who had seen it all, and his papers reveal the same combination of cheerful cynicism, tongue-in-cheek irreverence and flowery description that had charmed American radio audiences since the 1930s. Despite the fact that “red flags began to fly all over,” he was quick to point out to listeners that “the revolution began when some young male students wanted the privilege of visiting some young female students in their rooms and the authorities said no. The serious demands for a better educational system came later.” Trout rolled his eyes at the students but less so at the police — ducking paving stones was easier than evading clouds of tear gas: “You have a good cry, whether the police were actually aiming at you or not,” though the smell was “often mild and not unpleasant like the faint traces of an unfamiliar perfume.” (In a letter to his wife Catherine, he compared the taste of tear gas to “Juicy Fruit gum.”)

Trout and Walter Cronkite, ca. 1964.

Trout reported directly from Paris throughout May and June of 1968 before sailing (he hated flying) back to America to cover the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Trout’s sardonic musings on Paris contrasted markedly with his more serious tone in Chicago later that summer.  Trout—who had covered every political convention since 1936—described the scene both inside and outside the convention hall. The city streets were marked by “gas masks and bulletproof vests and more police than you can count in two weeks.” Meanwhile, on the floor, Democratic delegates “shook their fists in unison, like pickets on a strike line or children at a football game.”

Trout’s copy of the New York Times from August 29, 1968

 Comparing Chicago with Paris, Trout reflected years later that “on the surface it suddenly looked, astonishingly, the same. . . There were the same war cries. . . the same fresh and almost innocent faces … and the same skill shown by the organizers in directing their youthful troops.” However, in Paris students only “tended to know what they hated. . . not what they wanted,” whereas in Chicago, “the demand was very simple—an end to Vietnam.” Furthermore, the French students had successfully enlisted the help of the unions, while “in America, middle-class youths dismissed blue-collar types as hard heads.”

Trout’s annotated manuscripts from broadcasts related to the Paris and Chicago riots, 1968.

 After the conventions, Trout returned to Europe, dividing his time between Madrid and Paris. Eventually the crisis in France was diffused. Fresh elections were called. As would happen in November in America, the conservative parties triumphed. “Still,” as Trout presciently put it in a July 1968 dispatch, “the French world shook in May. And it may tremble on into new forms, never quite the same again.” The same could be said for America.  n