Report of the May Day demonstrations in France

This is an eyewitness report of the May Day demonstrations in Paris, which witnessed some of the biggest demonstrations since the revolutionary movement of 1968 and the liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944.

On Wednesday May 1, France witnessed some of the biggest demonstrations since the revolutionary movement of 1968 and the liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. This year's traditional May Day parades organised by the workers' unions could not have come at a more tense political moment. The racist National Front party (FN) candidate Le Pen won almost 17% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections on April 21 and will face the outgoing president Chirac in the run-off on Sunday May 5. Due to the overwhelming desire of workers' to form a united front against the FN, the trade union leaders of the biggest three federations, CGT (Communist), CFDT (Socialist) and the smaller FO, were forced to call a united demonstration on May 1 (they usually march separately!). The march kicked off at 3 pm from Place de la Republique through the Bastille and the less well-heeled areas of eastern Paris ending at Nation. However, due to the sheer quantity of people, the starting point was only just beginning to empty at 6 pm! In fact, the May Day parade, which in normal times barely attracts 50,000, had been joined by a staggering 400,000 plus protestors. It seemed like the whole youth of Paris and its suburbs had come - French, Arab and Black all together to say "NON" to Le Pen and his cohorts. In addition to the traditional banners of the worker's parties and unions, an almost uncountable number of young people had made their own placards, flags and posters with all sorts of slogans and demands. Supporters of La Riposte magazine also directly intervened giving out their leaflets, selling their journal and distributing their special issue document How to fight the far-right AND the right from two strategically placed tables at the start of the demo and then at the end of the demo, which did not actually finish marching until around 10 pm!

All this was of course was in stark contrast to the other main rally held on the very same morning in Paris - this time by the FN to celebrate "Joan of Arc". This march, held in the far more well-to-do area of Opéra and Rue de Rivoli assembled no more than 10,000-20,000 party militants - although Le Pen in pure demagogic fashion claimed that there were 100,000! This was a highly organised and stewarded affair where members were on strict orders not to talk to the press and were handed their standard French flag and their pre-fabricated "Proud to be French" placards. Le Pen made a brief appearance to lay a wreath at his heroine's statue and was then whisked away to make his speech to the party faithful. This regimented procession with its rather bourgeois and stern-faced looking contingent in their "Sunday best" and its sparse grouping of youth with their crew-cut hairstyles differed greatly from the spontaneous, vibrant atmosphere of the overwhelmingly young anti-Le Pen demo of the afternoon.

However, the most important factor of the May Day demo was not necessarily the participation, although massive, in Paris, but the protest marches held all round the country from the biggest cities of Lyons and Marseilles to the smallest villages of no more than 400 inhabitants. According to official figures, more than 1 million people participated in the May Day rallies outside of Paris, bringing the grand total to around 1.5 million for the whole country; 50,000 at Grenoble, 45,000 at Toulouse, 38,000 at Bordeaux, 15,000 at Strasbourg, 20,000 at Nice and a 100,000-strong (according to CGT) demonstration in Toulouse.

No other pro-FN events were reported, meaning that they were outnumbered by the anti-FN camp by 150 to 1 at most! This shows clearly the weakness of the far-right at the moment. Although there are undoubtedly some fascist elements within the FN, the movement is clearly not akin in strength and influence to the fascist movements of Germany and Italy in the 1930s. Despite its 4 million votes at the ballot box, it can barely muster 20,000 supporters on the streets, a far cry from the days of the Brownshirts and Blackshirts who wreaked terror wherever they trod. The basis of Le Pen's support is an inert group of unorganised voters who clearly neither have the strength nor the desire to take to the streets to defend their reactionary ideas. At the moment, the labour movement is far stronger in France than the far-right and is gaining in strength. We are certainly not at the dawn of a fascist takeover as some Left leaders have been suggesting in order to justify their treacherous open collaboration with the "moderate" right wing in the person of Jacques Chirac.

However, the labour movement must not drop its guard. The far-right and its disgusting racist discourse has made a breakthrough and is presenting a potential threat. The traditional workers' parties, the Socialists and the Communists, have suffered a minor defeat with the result of the first round of the presidential elections. However, this defeat has acted like an electric shock for the many workers who abstained or voted for the ultra-left candidates. The Socialist Party in particular has seen a marked rise in membership applications since April 21 as many see it as the only tool for fighting the far-right and the right-wing parties. This is clear proof that when workers enter into political struggle they choose their traditional parties, and not the fringe ultra-left parties. The main task now is the general elections on June 16 and 23. There is now a very probable chance that the Socialist Party will lose its majority (due to its right-wing policies) and that the FN will be able to win a group of at least 30 MPs (it has none at the moment). In such a situation of a hung parliament, the right wing of the Socialist Party might be tempted to form a coalition with the centre-right parties in order to (as they would argue) block out the FN. The supporters of La Riposte in the Socialist and Communist parties as well as in the workers' and students' unions will be spending the next six weeks campaigning for a Socialist-Communist government on a genuine Socialist programme and for no collaboration with the right wing as the only way to defeat the racist ideology espoused by Jean Marie Le Pen on a permanent basis.