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May Day 2OO4

photo: parade leaders, b thibault, cgt

Union leaders at the head of the parade.

Four Parades Instead of One

Paris:– Saturday, 1. May:– It's good to get back into the swing of things after missing my May Day march last year. In 2003 it fell on a Café Metropole Club meeting day, and I doubted if members would have wanted to hold the meeting 'somewhere between République and Bastille' or wherever it was.

Today's edition has several things going for it. This morning at 00:01, ten more countries joined the European Union. At sunrise the weather here – I assume this, but did not witness it – was cloudy, but becomes more than partly sunny. It is warm too – maybe three or four degrees above 'normal for the time of year.'

Because May Day falls on a Saturday, Le Parisien was forced to print the predicted parade routes in Friday's edition. No Paris papers are printed on the 'Fête du Travail' day, and normally few think it necessary to tell their readers about anything happening 'tomorrow' unless it is an announced transport strike.

Then the May Day program for Paris calls for four parades. The CFTC starts at Montparnasse early in the morning and goes over to the Champ de Mars. The ultra–right–wing Front National has its annual minor effort, beginning at 9:30 at Châtelet, and then goes to the Opéra by its usual route.

Force Ouvrière starts at Bastille at noon and tramps out east to the Place Gambetta. Finally, thephoto: banners, solgans, union CGT and its cohorts UNSA and FSU, are to start at République at 15:00, to march via Bastille to Nation. This is likely to be the most interesting, the most 'red,' I hope.

When I set out for the Métro, I am surprised that some cafés are open and some food merchants are peddling fruits and cheeses. On a day when Monoprix says it is going to be closed, I expect everything to be locked up tight. All except for the one–day vendors of the entire annual crop of Lily of the Valley, or 'muguet.'

Instead, the terraces are full of Parisians sitting in sunbeams – perhaps thinking about going to the Foire de Paris, which began its 11 day run on Thursday, continuing until Sunday, 9. May. On the other hand, the weather seems too nice to be inside squashed in mobs. Outside with mobs seems like a better idea.

After a while a Métro train comes along and I get a window seat on it. Many more people get on as the train chugs north, and few get off at Châtelet to switch to the line one going to Bastille. I leave the Métro at Saint–Paul and walk east on Saint–Antoine.

There are, as it always seems now, a lot of people wandering about. I guess most of them are Parisians, out to enjoy a bonus free day in their city. Tomorrow many of them will be standing in lines to get into the museums and monuments that all have free entry – in Paris, in France and throughout Europe.

Just inside the Place des Vosges there is a fair–sized audience for the orchestra under the arches. More people are in the interior Square Louis XII, where the grass is still 'resting' after its not very hard winter. The cafés under the arches are jammed with diners wearing summer clothes.

I take the Rue du Pas du Mule up to the Boulevard Beaumarchais. The boulevard running between République and Bastille is deserted, waiting. The CGT's poster hangers have been around and everything is thoroughly plastered with their 'manif' sign. All the shops are shut, most with their iron shutters down, and only a few cafés are open. There only are a few cafés anyway.

The sun is mostly shining and many of the trees along the boulevard are showing off their fresh green leaves. Aphoto: rebellez vous, syndiquez vous lot of people are walking towards République, but not many have taken up spectator positions. If the parade has huge numbers, it will be slow getting started. If it comes too quickly, it means the opposite.

I forget to look at the time, to calculate which is which. Even standing on the highest curb on the boulevard, it is impossible to tell how many are in the oncoming parade. In 2002 they were calculated at a million – paraders were still entering République when the parade had reached its destination at Nation.

For the moment not much is happening. One of the open cafés across the street has its terrace full, with sort of a front–row seat on the boulevard. There are no peddlers selling sausages. There aren't even any people hustling the little bouquets of 'muguet' – May Day's 'Flower of the Day.'

I've gotten the May Day parade mixed up with the 'Techno Parade.' This parade sneaks up with hardly a sound. Almost without seeing it coming, marchers are lined up from one side of the boulevard to the other – kind of being stabilized as a coherent front line.

Right behind, another line is trying to organize itself along a rope. What is this? Are these this year's model of the CGT's security squad? This gang looks more like the pensioned version of it – if people got pensions any more.

Then, right behind, carrying a yellow banner with the word 'Ensemble' on it, are the CGT leadership. It's hard to tell because they are not mobbed by the TV–news cameras.

They must have been before or after. I've got the photo, but it not until after I see the evening's TV–news version, that I come back to my photo to find Bernard Thibault, the CGT's boss syndicalist. He's wearing jeans a bit less old than mine, and he's still got his '70s haircut.

Marching, carrying banners, handing out leaflets, pushing baby strollers, are people of all ages, many with red flags and red CGT stickers on their lapels.

Also represented at the parade's head are some of the 'recalculated.' These are the unemployed who had their benefits slashed on 1. January of this year. A lot of them have gone to court with their unemployment 'contracts,' and some initial judgements have been in favor of the reinstatement of their benefits.

There are several points of contention this season. Actually there are so many that it is impossible for the unionsphoto: july column, euro may day banner, bastille to agree to a common cause, and this is why they are not marching all together today.

So the mood on the Boulevard Beaumarchais seems a bit somber even if there is a lot of blue sky showing between the white fluffy clouds overhead. My situation is not rosy either but I feel good to be out in the air, seeing all the red flags, orange banners and yellow balloons.

The union parades on May Day are not terribly formal affairs. If you feel tired of being a spectator, you can put your feet on the pavement and march right along with everybody else, and this is what I do.

In the distance the 'July Column' sticks up from the centre of the Place de la Bastille like a green finger pointing at the blue sky. Instead of crossing in front of the column to turn left into the Rue du Faubourg Saint–Antoine, the parade is sweeping around counter– clockwise to disappear into the Avenue de Lyon on the south side of the Opéra.

The whole place is closed to traffic all the same. There is an outdoor art market in the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, and there is a commercial Marché d'Art on the south side, overlooking the Port de l'Arsenal. The newspaper L'Humanité has a tent beside it, with a rock band – live! not techno! – chugging happily along with feet–treat music.

While the parade ambles through, some younger marchers detach themselves and hop the fence surrounding the 'July Column.' They climb up its base and hang the 'Euro–MayDay' banner off it for a few minutes before taking it down and back to the parade, on its way to Nation.

The column has a bit of a raised base, and from this I can see paraders still filling the Boulevard Beaumarchais, with red flags still waving and the balloons still advancing slowly.

There is a guy dressed like a big baby duck or chicken, with a little protest sign. Since there are no scenesphoto: banners, researchers of battle anywhere, he attracts the attention of some photographers. Over on the west side of the place there are some policemen who think he is funny, but they stay behind the crowd barriers that everybody else is ignoring.

There usually is a big and visible police presence, but it seems absent today except for a few traffic types on scooters. There is a total lack of tension, which is not what I can say about past May Day parades. Maybe it is because the new Minister of the Interior is a diplomat.

The wide and nearly empty Boulevard Henri IV draws me into its wide sunlit space, which lasts all the way to the Pont de Sully and across it to the Quartier Latin.

Then all I have left to do is walk along Saint–Germain to the Boulevard Saint–Michel and up it in its shade to the Luxembourg garden. It is full of half–asleep sunbathers who are not marching anywhere today, or battling mobs of potential consumers at the Foire de Paris.

Which reminds me that the former Minister of the Interior, who is now grappling with France's financial problems, has proposed that shops stay open on ten Sundays a year instead of five – because France needs the money. Most unions are not warm to the idea.

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