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Europe Europe

French take to the streets in May Day marches

Text by Caroline DELABROY

Latest update : 2009-05-02

Tens of thousands of people across France protested President Nicolas Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis, as unions and the left-wing opposition united in a "historic" demand for more aid for those hit by the slowdown.

“Catholics go to Lourdes, Muslims to Mecca, and union members… to May Day.” Michel, a 61-year-old retired IT worker and CGT union member, is certainly not at his first demo. However, May Day 2009 was of particular importance to him. “[French President] Nicolas Sarkozy does not have the answer to the crisis. He is deliberately giving money to the rich, just look at the tax cap. I hope there will be a maximum amount of people to show our discontent.”


Place Denfert-Rochereau, where the Parisian demo started from, seems to meet Michel’s expectations. A sea of flags shine under a blue sky, the traditional thrush bouquets bounce along political signs, and everyone repeats the same word: unity. In fact, the eight largest French workers unions decided, for the first time since the end of WWII, to march together at the annual event.

As usual, political party and union leaders filled the first ranks of the march. They carried a banderol reading: “Facing the crisis together, let us defend jobs, purchasing power and social services, the end of layoffs, and an increase of salaries and retirement pensions.”


Dreaming of the General Strike


Behind the banderol a calm ambiance pervades. There are no slogans chanted or angry shouts to be heard. A sticker being distributed widely is especially popular. It is a play on words in French that turns ‘General Strike’ into ‘General Dream’, conveying the dream of many of those assembled, that workers will unite and extend their strike beyond the yearly bank holiday.


Jean-Pierre, a member of the collective Ne Pas Plier (Do Not Fold), which created the sticker, is all smiles. The retired professor of the Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University is happy with the turnout. “It’s a symbolic event, that beyond expressing objectives and demands of the struggle, gives us hope for another way of living together,” he says.


Wearing a white shirt and trainers, with a beer and sandwich in tow, 28-year-old Thomas marches at an unhurried pace. It is his first May Day march, and he says he is here out of “solidarity”. As a salesperson in an interior decorations store, he says he thought he had to come and express his “feeling of injustice”. “The bonuses, the dividends, it’s always the same people who win out.”


“I haven’t been to a May Day demo for a long time,” chirps 71-year-old Nicole, who like many, is here with her family. “We have a government who does not listen to us. It does everything it can for the weathy, the bosses, and nothing for the masses, nor those who are retired, and even less for the workers,” she explains. She is flanked by her daughter and granddaughter, the later just having discovered student movements.


From 65,000 to 165,000 protesters


The diverse blend that comprises students, civil employees and private sector workers moves towards the iconic Bastille. Saiku, a student at Bretagne-Sud University, travelled to Paris to make the voice of working students heard. Natacha, a social worker, is concerned her work hours are being “diverted toward the policing of young delinquents, and away from monitory at-risk youths.” Christian, an Air France employee, is aware the company he works for will “slash 3,000 jobs and subcontract outside the country.”


The demo is also an opportunity for some people to express completely different demands. Impressive in their numbers, several thousand Tamils denounce, flags and flyers poised, the “genocide” of civilians by the Sri Lankan army. “We demand that journalists be allowed to enter the region, and that a corridor for the delivery of humanitarian aid be opened,” explains 21-year-old Berlinee.


From the pavement, 42-year-old Matteo watches the protesters march past him. An Italian living in Spain, he is only passing through Paris. “Throughout Europe we know that the demonstrations in France are stronger than anywhere else, and I was curious to see it with my own eyes. I am very impressed with the turnout.”


The demo in Paris gathered 65,000 people, according to police and 160,000 according to the unions. Whatever the real figure is, it is much higher than the 2008 May Day (15,000 to 30,000), but also considerably lower than the protest organised on March 19 (85,000 to 350,000).

Date created : 2009-05-01