May Day rallies

French workers celebrate May Day despite clashes and arrests in Paris, Lyon

Demonstrators carry banners - protesting France's billionaires - during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2021.
Demonstrators carry banners - protesting France's billionaires - during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2021. © REUTERS - GONZALO FUENTES

Thousands of workers took part in May Day rallies across France on Saturday, their anger fuelled by the poverty gap which has increased during the Covid pandemic. Peaceful for the most part, violent clashes between police and some protestors broke out in Paris and Lyon, both before and during the marches.

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Like last year, French unions celebrated their traditional International Workers’ Day under the shadow of Covid-19, but today they were at least allowed to take to the streets.

French authorities were expecting some 100,000 people to march in major cities across France.

After a locked down May Day in 2020 “we are picking up our good old habits”, said Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the communist-backed CGT union.

Along with France's other main trade unions, the CGT called for a “day of mobilisation and protest” in favour of “jobs, salaries, public services, social protection, freedom and peace in the world”. They are particularly worried about unemployment reforms which are due to come into force in July.

Only the CFDT union - which has closer ties to the government and management - chose not to take part, preferring an “online demonstration” on Facebook.

The anger is there

In Paris, the procession was headed up by militants holding banners in tribute to the revolutionary Paris Commune which marks its 150th anniversary this year.

For Martinez, today's march was an opportunity to express the anger of workers after a particularly difficult year.

“The anger is there and has to express itself whether in companies, services and here in the streets,” he said.

He acknowledged the government had given companies a lot of financial aid to help them through the Covid crisis and that this benefited employees "but what I see is that a lot of aid is being use in redundancy plans and restructuring, for example in foundries.”

Citing big firms like Renault in which the French state is a major stakeholder, he said they were “profiting from public money, profiting from the pandemic in order to restructure and relocate abroad”. 

Violent clashes

Anger turned into violence on several occasions both before and during marches, notably in the capital and the southern town of Lyon.

In Paris, police fired tear gas after far-left ‘”Black Blocs” anarchists reportedly tried to block the march. 34 people were detained. 

Some protestors smashed the windows of banks, set fire to dustbins and threw projectiles at police. An injured policeman had to be evacuated.

3,000 people marched in the southern city of Lyon. Local media Lyon Mag reported that clashes in the city broke out between police and black blocs shouting anti-police slogans. Tear gas was fired and at least five people were arrested. 

There were also several "scuffles" on the union march in Nantes attended by close to 4,000 people.

In Toulouse in the south west, more than a thousand took part, many from the Yellow Vest movement whose year-long weekly protests against the government and in favour of social justice were brought to an abrupt halt when lockdown was first introduced in March 2020.

4,500 are reported to have marched in Bordeaux, 3,500 in Marseille, 2,000 in Rennes.

Getting social issues back on the agenda

Carole, demonstrating with friends and their three teenage children, said she was "against the health dictatorship"."It’s a bit different this year, we are here to show opposition to laws that are threatening our freedom, dictatorship, the curfew", she said.

"There are so many reasons for a revolt building up: the way Covid is handled, the so-called reforms that are going to take away people's ability to live, job-seekers who are going to lose their benefits," said Patricia, a pensioner.

For Benoit Teste of the FSU union "this May Day should, ideally, bring social issues back on the agenda". He said he was "shocked by the public debate which is focused on instrumentalising laicité (secularism) and questions of security”.

(with wires)

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