May Day Proves To Be Heated

PARIS – In France, as in many countries in Europe, May Day marks International Workers’ Day, and today was even more tension-filled than usual. It is a national holiday in France, each year celebrated on May 1st. Schools and businesses have the day off, and every year the people take to the streets.

Today was no different, in fact, today was even more politically charged than previous years.

With the first round of elections finished and the second round just around the corner, many streets, or rues, were shut down today for manifestations. French President and current candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, held a unprecedented rally which he titled “The Real Labor Day” at Trocadaro in the sixteenth arrondissement. Sarkozy is a member of the Union pour un Movement Populaire (UMP), a party generally considered to be on the center-right of the political spectrum. The sixteenth arrondissement is a relatively conservative neighborhood of Paris, home to many French elite. Sarkozy currently lives there as well. “The France of the working does not apologize for her wealth, does not apologize for her efforts, and does not apologize for her merit. What she has she has earned,” said the President. Directly addressing the unions, who simultaneously protested elsewhere in Paris, Sarkozy added, “Put down the red flag and serve France! Look at the processions, they chose to march under red flags, we chose the tricolored flag.” The “tricolored flag” is in reference to the French national flag while the “red flag” refers to the color that historically represents the political left.

Indeed, the streets of Paris between Port Royal and Basille were ridden with left-leaning supporters and everywhere there was red. Represented in the protest were the Parti Socialiste (PS), who’s candidate, François Hollande, is the second candidate running against Sarkozy in the second round of elections. The PS is the center-left political party. Additionally, there were supporters of Le Front de Gauche, the extreme-left party whose candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, came in fourth place with about 11% of the vote in the first round of elections on April 22nd.

The Confédération générale du travail (CGT) or the General Confederation of Labor has historically been one of the principle organizers of the May Day marches, and it remained so this year. The CGT is the national trade union and is the oldest and arguably largest of the five major confederations of trade unions in France. The trademark red CGT along with the campaign signs for the Le Front Gauche, added to the sea of red that filled Paris. Anywhere near the march, people were giving out red carnations, a historic symbol that dates back to the French Revolution. The supporters of the PS were intended, according to Le Monde to stay separate from the Union marches, however within a short amount of time, the marchers seemed to all be mixed. Ségolène Royal, the 2007 PS Presidential candidate against Sarkozy and Francois Hollande’s ex-partner, marched alongside fellow PS supports in Paris.

Hollande, however, spent May Day in Nevers, a smaller city in the Burgundy region, south of Paris. He was commemorating Pierre Bérégovoy, the former socialist prime minister during François Mitterrand’s presidency. Bérégovoy died on May 1st, 1993. To thousands of supporters, Hollande stressed the need to keep May 1st as a “celebration of union members.” Attacking Sarkozy’s recently posed challenge to the unions and his opponent’s rally at Trocadaro, Hollande said, “Yes, Labor Day is a celebration of trade unions and I cannot accept that there may be a battle here in France on May 1st against trade unionism.”

Marine Le Pen stayed in Paris, hosting her own rally at la place de l’Opéra, outside of the famous National Opera House of Paris located in the second arrondissement. Le Pen represents Le Front National (FN) or the extreme-right party came in third place with approximately 17% of the vote during the first round. She told supporters that she would cast a blank vote in the election, opting to vote for neither candidate as a personal form of protest, an option in the French voting system. “Vote according to your conscience,” she said, calling Sarkozy and Hollande “candidates of the system.”

The second round of elections between Sarkozy and Hollande is set to take place this Sunday, May 6th.

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