French protest witness Aden

The City Breaks in Aden and Paris, 1968

By Benjie Beer

After a brush with trouble in the Middle East, Andrew Cowan couldn’t resist a
journey to the troubled French capital.

In November 1967, twenty-three-year-old Andrew Cowan was on a Swedish oil
tanker fleeing the British withdrawal from Aden. The ‘Aden Emergency’, as it came to
be called, had turned violent just as his ship arrived: a glance over the deck walls
was to see explosive skirmishes between British troops and the Yemeni National
Liberation Front.

“It was chaos,” says Cowan, speaking from a care home in Ely, Cambridgeshire. “We
couldn’t step foot in the town for fear of our lives.” But, he adds with a wry chuckle, “it
was also very exhilarating.”

The sense of adventure Cowan gleaned from such experiences was the reason why,
at the age of just sixteen, he had run away from his home in Glasgow and joined the
navy. “I’ve lived my life with itchy feet,” he reflects, “and I was never that content at
home, really.”

But the flight from Aden led to some unexpected consequences. After many long,
unplanned months in Cape Town, the decision was made to try and flog oil in Iran.
It was now April 1968, and the long weeks onboard ship were weighing hard. On
arriving in Iran, the young man felt compelled to venture out alone – and was
immediately arrested, for no better reason than that he looked British. A fortunate
twist of fate led to a speedy release, but, with his ship now gone, he had no choice
but to fly back to London.

Now seventy-three, Cowan is nonetheless fluent as he finds the words to describe
what happened next.

“I felt relieved on getting back to British soil, but I didn’t want to settle down. It’s
boring settling down! It was almost as if, having seen the madness in Aden, I wanted
to see some more…”

And, as it happened, April 1968 was also the month in which anti-establishment riots
were beginning to fire up in Paris.

“So, first thing I did when I got off the plane at Heathrow was head into London and
meet some pals of mine. There were three of us, two blokes I’d known in the Middle
East, and we were sitting in this café in Piccadilly, looking at the papers, and we saw
this stuff about riots in Paris. All three of us had been on the road for at least two
years and we were pretty spontaneous. I can just remember that all three of us were
thinking the same thing — so we decided to head over and have a look.”

On the very same day he had arrived home after several turbulent years abroad,
Cowan, with two friends in tow, jumped straight on a plane for Paris.

The question is: why?

“It’s interesting, I’d seen some pretty unpleasant confrontations in the Middle East
and it seemed small in comparison. I had no political motives, I just thought I’d see
how serious they were.”

The riots had begun in March, when students in Nanterre occupied a university
building in protest at their living conditions. A vein of discontent that ran across the
country was instantly tapped into, and before long Paris was churning with students
protesting primarily against the basic principles of capitalism.

On arriving in Paris, it became evident that there was indeed trouble afoot. Riot
police patrolled the airport and taxi drivers were reluctant to drive into the city centre.
After finally finding a cab willing to take them, the three friends were confronted with
an odd scene.

“At first,” says Cowan, laughing intermittently at the memory, ‘it looked like a
significant-looking protest, and I thought, “Blimey, it’s going to be a good one!”. But
then it became clear that this wasn’t so much a protest as a disorganised rabble.”

The protesters, mostly aged from eighteen to twenty-five and the majority of them
male students, were being held in the streets by lines of policeman. Cowan insists
there was no sinister feeling in the air, but more the general, unconcentrated
discontentment of youth. On the few occasions they did manage to speak to a
protester, they could discern no consistent narrative from them.

Three days passed, and ultimately nothing came of it for the three friends beyond
watching a few students irritate policemen in the street.

But is there anything to take from the experience a full fifty years after it happened,
whether or not there were any immediate answers?
Cowan takes a moment to think.

“Yes,” he says slowly. “Yes, I think there is – but I say this as a very old man,
remember – it’s just about seeing things. At that point in life, I was just in it for the
entertainment. And entertained I suppose I was.”