This university describes itself as “a major teaching and research centre for humanities in the Île-de-France region” and as “a pioneer in fields that were usually not approached by other French universities: psychoanalysis, urban planning, geopolitics, cinema, plastic arts, gender studies, etc.”
It was founded in 1969 as an experimental academic center in Vincennes, an eastern suburb of Paris. It was known at that time as the Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes (C.U.E.V.) and was conceived as an alternative to traditional universities in response to demands articulated during the student uprising of 1968.
In 1971, as part of a large-scale reorganization of higher education in Paris, the C.U.E.V. became the “University of Paris 8”, one of thirteen numbered universities in Paris and vicinity (and the only one not to use a Roman numeral in its name). In 1980 it moved to Saint-Denis to this new campus on the site of a former military installation, but for some reason it also kept “Vincennes” in the name. (And of course it kept “Paris” in the name, to sound prestigious.)
The only reason I wanted to see this university is that one of my sons has a master’s degree from here. He never showed me the campus, which is no wonder since it is a rather drab and ramshackle sort of place. I must say, though, that I much prefer this campus to the dreadful Jussieu campus in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, home of the prestigious Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie (= UPMC or University of Paris VI, now a part of the new Sorbonne Université.).
A much nicer Paris campus is the new Campus Grands Moulins of the Diderot University (= University of Paris VII, now part of the new Université de Paris). But the traditional main university building, the Sorbonne, still outshines them all.
This wide bridge across the Avenue de Stalingrad connects the north and south sides of the Saint Denis campus. Printed on the bridge are various questions starting with Où ai-je lu… (= Where did I read…), for instance “Where did I read that there are two kinds of trees, the beeches and the non-beeches?” or “Where did I read that any even number is the sum of two prime numbers?” or “Where did I read that the mind is tough if it opens to the right and mild if it opens to the left?”
Of course these questions were formulated in the 1970s, before the invention of modern internet search engines. Nowadays we can google these questions and, with any luck, find out within seconds where we read about them (or where we could have read about them if we had wanted to). The one about prime numbers, for instance, is the Goldbach conjecture, which as I learned a few minutes ago is “one of the trickiest unanswered questions in mathematics”.
In fact, as I learned thirty seconds ago, all these questions were formulated by the author and filmmaker Georges Perec (1936-1982) in his book Je me souviens (= I remember), published in 1978.
Since I visited the Saint-Denis campus during the summer vacation, not much was going on. I expect it would have been more interesting during the semester when classes were in session.
The most common way of getting to Saint-Denis is to take line 13 of the Paris Métro. You can use a normal Paris “t+” Métro ticket for this, with no additional charge, even though Saint-Denis is a suburb and not a part of the city of Paris.
This line now has three stations in Saint-Denis: Porte de Paris, Basilique and Université. Unfortunately line 13 is extremely overcrowded during the morning and evening rush hours, even more than most of the other lines. Note that line 13 splits into two northern branches at La Fourche, so be sure you are on a train going to Saint-Denis and not Asnières.
Saint-Denis is also served by the D line of the Réseau Express Régional (RER) and by the tramway T1. The tramway connects Saint-Denis with other suburbs such as Noisy-le-Sec, La Courneuve and Asnières, but not with Paris.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2020.