by Tony Cross
Article published on the 2008-09-05 Latest update 2008-11-07 11:52 TU
“We’re basing ourselves on last year and expect 500,000 people over the three days,” says Marie Turpin at the festival’s press office. She adds that the biggest crowds will be on Saturday, when the main concert takes place.
Timed to coincide with the rentrée, when the French return from their summer holidays, the annual festival is organised by the party’s paper and takes place in the working-class Paris suburb of La Courneuve.
“Like it or not, the Fête de l’Humanité constitutes the big event of the rentrée every year,’’ declares the party’s website, gamely implying that somewhere a nest of reactionaries will interpret a successful festival as evidence that the red menace is still on the march.
For the French left, waiting for the holiday-makers to return is no frivolous gesture. Time-off has political resonance in France - witness the current controversy over the 35-hour week - and French socialists regard paid annual vacation not as a bourgeois indulgence, as puritan English-speakers might, but as a right won by workers’ strikes following the election of a Communist-backed Popular Front government in 1936.
Even if l’Humanité itself reported that this year 42 per cent of French people cancelled their holiday plans, festival organisers have still risked September’s unreliable weather to be sure that the masses will turn up.
Canvas-covered stands will cover 70,000 square metres of La Courneuve’s park, made available by the Communist-led municipality of St Denis. The crowds will enjoy late summer sun if they’re lucky, or wade through mud reminiscent of the battlefields of the Somme if autumn rains have decided to spoil the party.
Reluctant politicos may be pleased to find how easy it is to avoid politics. Sponsors include airlines, banks and other businesses, while the festival’s poster doesn’t mention politics at all, announcing American singer Roger Hudson (“the voice of Supertramp”) and British band Babyshambles.
President Sarkozy is presumably unaware that British police banned Babyshambles from appearing at the Moonfest festival this summer on the grounds that the fact that they "speed up and then slow down the music" might lead to violence.
The fête suffered a serious setback on both the political and the gastronomic planes with the collapse of the ‘‘socialist bloc’’ after 1989. The international village is not what it was. No more cheap Soviet-published Lenin pamphlets and far fewer delicacies served by apparatchiks delegated by the embassies of fraternal People’s Democracies.
Today’s visitors have to make do with Cuban lobsters or North Korean kimchee, or just snack at stalls run by parties which have lost the bulk of their members and probably changed their names into the bargain.
But, this being France, there’s still plenty of food and drink, plus theatre, cinema, art shows and children’s entertainment.