On May 1st 2012, I took to the streets of Paris to discover how le peuple mark (or attempt to unmark) the International Workers’ Day in the city of love.
- Soundtrack of the report
As a native of Copenhagen, Denmark, I'm used to May Day being more or less reserved for brunch with anthem-roaring, aquavit-drinking friends, then marches, speeches, music, and lots of beer, all framed by waves of red flags and herds of teenagers who seem much more excited to get hammered than to express their solidarity with workers worldwide.
This year, I got to experience May Day in Paris for a change, and the impressions were manifold and almost frighteningly diverse.
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s election time in France, and there was no way the right wing was going to let any public holiday pass - let alone one tainted by socialist tradition - without trying to steal the show. To fit the occasion, Paris was laid out like a proper amusement park: the fancy Sarko City in the southwest, Marine’s secluded castle to the north, and the vast and lively Redlands in the southeast. I went to all parts of course, and even though some of the attractions made me gag a bit and even got scary at times, I’m glad I stayed on till the end.
My first stop was the Front National assembly in front of the beautiful Opera. There I managed to catch two generations of Le Pen respectively commemorate the 600th anniversary of Jeanne d’Arc, the warfaring country girl celebrated as the epitome of a true nationalist by the party on every May 1st since the late 1980s, and rage at most of the rest of the world. A couple of skinheads were asked to leave by party security, their rough looks apparently not in line with Marine’s vision of a fresh, clean FN image. I got myself a few suspicious glances and was given a serious evil eye by a man with a very big flag. But I stood my ground and stayed, watching people while pondering how a crowd of such diversity and magnitude had been convinced to jump on a ride as daunting as this one.
After a quick lunch by the Eiffel Tower, I toured on to Sarko City by Trocadéro. A strange place this was, densely populated by light-skinned men and women, all perfectly groomed and hushing each other at the crucial moment when their Nicolas took the stage. This attraction seemed a bit overdone to me, considering especially le petit prince’s violently dramatic intro music. But everyone else there was intensely excited, waving even more tricolores even higher than anyone else I saw that day. In France, May 1st is known as fête du travail rather than fête des travailleurs, and evidently, the obviously well-off sarkozists figured the day was as much theirs as anyone else’s. More than anything, this assembly was marked by the strong scent of perfume, a feeling of possibly being in an A.I.-themed horror movie, and lots of trying not to ruin designer shoes by stepping on anyone’s toes. Did one (robot-like) segment alone secure Sarkozy’s last presidency?
Puzzled and somewhat troubled by what I had seen so far, I ventured east toward the Redlands, where a genuine workers’ march was to take off from Place Denfert. Luckily, I made it there just in time to catch the tail of the march. Working my way further and further up the huge serpentine of people, balloons, and cars blasting music, I passed students, teachers, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, feminists, people wearing stickers, Syrians, you name it. What they seemed to have in common was an all-encompassing air of celebratory rebellion. Crying out for better times while rejoicing in community, well, it made sense. Actually it was about the first thing that made sense to me that day.