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May Day in France: scattered unions, united far right

Philippe Lopez, AFP | Place de la République in Paris on May 1, 2017.

Despite vocal labour and student unrest, rolling transport strikes and the 50th anniversary of May 1968’s popular uprising, unions have failed to muster any exceptional unity for this May Day in France.

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Demonstrating together on May Day is far from customary for French labour unions. Massive protests nationwide in 2002 after far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shock presidential election performance remain a rare if notable exception. Indeed, far-right scion Marine Le Pen’s name on the presidential run-off ballot last year was not enough to bring union forces together on May 1 -- just six days before the centrist Emmanuel Macron, a bête noire in his own right for some leftists, claimed the Elysée Palace in a relative landslide.

Unions not united

This year, major French unions remain divided on the most effective line to take against President Macron’s reform efforts.

Weeks into disruptive rolling transport strikes by SNCF railworkers and Air France employees and amid a flurry of student blockades contesting reform of the university admissions process, the far-left CGT’s call for unity in a “convergence of struggles” to support disgruntled public and private sector workers has fallen on deaf ears.

>> Read more: Cocktail of anger lacks punch at Paris anti-reform protest

The CGT has called 240 demonstrations and rallies across France on Tuesday “against challenges to established social rights, selective admission to university” and “in favour of social progress, peace; international solidarity!”.

In Paris, the CGT will lead an afternoon march from the Place de la Bastille alongside a limited handful of like-minded labour union forces as well as the UNEF student union, wending its way down to the Place d’Italie in the 13th arrondissement.

For its part, the reform-minded CFDT union -- which has snubbed the CGT’s coveted “convergence of struggles” as “not the CFDT’s cup of tea” – is banding together with the CFTC and UNSA unions for May Day rallies set to emphasise “protest and culture”. Gatherings in Paris, Dijon, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand and Troyes will feature screenings of “7 Minuti”, by Italian director Michele Placido. The film tells the story of textile workers at a struggling Italian factory facing the prospect of a takeover by a French industrial giant.

“This film emphasizes the importance of social dialogue and collective negotiation, which can permit finding concrete openings for employees and jobs,” CFDT National Secretary Hervé Garnier explained in a statement. “This is all the more pertinent at a moment when social dialogue has been called into question and come in for attack,” he continued.

Risk of violence

Paris police have issued a warning that some elements may be looking to spread violence and cause material damage during Tuesday’s marches in the French capital. “Activists from extremist anti-establishment groups are looking, during the traditional May 1 demonstration, to lash out violently against law enforcement as well as symbols of capitalism”, the prefecture said in a statement, naming banks, real-estate agencies and car dealerships as businesses that could be targeted for damage.

One such group has issued a call on Facebook to make Tuesday “a day of hell” for “Macron and his world”.

Last year, six police officers were hurt in Paris on May Day, including one who was seriously injured by a Molotov cocktail.

Far-right decamps to the Riviera

While National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen will, as per his custom, lay flowers at the statue of Joan of Arc on horseback near the Louvre Museum in central Paris, the 89-year-old’s estranged daughter is decamping the party’s traditional May 1 rally to the Côte d’Azur.

Marine Le Pen has called together her far-right counterparts from across Europe to advocate for a “Union of European Nations” in Nice ahead of 2019 European parliamentary elections. Far-right leaders from across the continent -- including the Austrian FPÖ’s Harald Vilimsky, the Dutch PVV leader Geert Wilders and others from Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Greece -- are expected to attend. Italy's Matteo Salvini is due to appear via video message.

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