2 May: May Day gate-crashing

Workers' rights on the campaign trail: today’s instalment of Marlière Across La Manche on the (mis)appropriation of May Day

Philippe Marlière
2 May 2012

May Day is a celebration and a struggle for workers’ rights around the world. The origin of May Day lies in the fight for an eight-hour working day, a cause supported by the socialist Second International from 1890 onwards. Contrary to what a large number of people say, May Day is not about celebrating “work”, let alone “real work” as Nicolas Sarkozy infamously put it earlier this week. Yet, both the UMP and FN joined the May Day celebrations this year. They organised mass rallies in the centre of Paris. These were scenes as puzzling as seeing staunch republicans gate-crashing the Queen’s jubilee party. Why were they there in the first place? As an UMP official candidly acknowledged, we are days away from the decisive second round and Sarkozy had to be seen as well.

Melenchon May Day

Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the May Day demonstration, Paris. Photo: © Elli Medeiros

Marine Le Pen perpetuated her father’s invented tradition (in 1988) by gathering her supporters at the Place de l’Opéra by the Joan of Arc statue. The extreme-right leader revealed the worst kept secret on the campaign trail: she won’t be voting for either of the two frontrunners on Sunday. She will cast, as the French say, a “blank vote”. Why would she call her supporters to vote for Sarkozy when she wholeheartedly hopes that the incumbent president will lose on Sunday? A defeated and weak right would boost her ambitions to become the leader of the main party on the right.

Sarkozy’s intentions were very different. He thinks that he can win this election by wooing Le Pen’s electorate. There was no attempt to make the event look “popular”. It was set at the Place du Trocadero against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. Place Trocadero is located in the 16e arrondissement, the poshest and most exclusive area in Paris. There, the president could address “ordinary workers” who are not unionised and do not demonstrate holding red flags. When Sarkozy shouted: “We don’t want Socialism!”, the crowd erupted.

Each passing day, the UMP candidate’s campaign drifts further to the right. In the morning on RMC radio, Sarkozy had unashamedly said that “there are too many immigrants in France”: immigrants, trade-unions, left-wingers, people living on benefits, Sarkozy has a long list of “enemies within”. At the rally, mentions of national identity, French Christian heritage and the defence of borders sounded hopelessly off the mark in a laïque country hit by a deep economic recession. Jean-Luc Mélenchon remarked earlier this week that had he been ahead of Marine Le Pen in the first round, the two frontrunners would now be debating the questions that really concern the French (unemployment, wages, the state of public services), instead of the FN’s scaremongering agenda on law and order. I saw on TV Sarkozy’s supporters wearing tee-shirts bearing a photograph of General de Gaulle: “He saved France, so did Nicolas Sarkozy”. Why didn’t anyone think of that before?

The crowd was enthusiastic and in a combative mood. Several journalists reported that they had been abused and some were even physically threatened. Sarkozy has started to pick on journalists as he accuses them of being partial. It is a surprising allegation because the biggest media in France are the property of some of his very close friends and political supporters.

The unions organised up to 300 demonstrations gathering together a million people across France (of which 250,000 were in Paris). Observers reported that there were four times as many demonstrators as last year. Sarkozy’s Trocadero show apparently galvanised the Left. The demonstrations were colourful and joyful, with a rare show of unity from the unions.

François Hollande was in Nevers in the Nièvre department to commemorate Pierre Bérégovoy, a former Socialist prime minister under François Mitterrand, who shortly after a PS electoral debacle shot himself on 1 May 1993. This was a strong symbolic choice. Bérégovoy’s monetary policies were deeply unpopular, but he was respected as a person. A working-class man, a trade-unionist and a humble and quiet individual, Bérégovoy’s suicide shocked France. Hollande praised trade-unionists in general and said that they should be defended, not attacked. He argued that “trade-unionists fulfil the most important of jobs. They are there to protect the weak and poor from getting the sack and to give them dignity”. For the first time since the beginning of the campaign, I felt that Hollande genuinely identified with an old socialist constituency: working-class voters.


This post is dedicated to Aliette Guibert-Certhoux and Elli Medeiros.

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