Hide and Seek May Day Parade

Parade arrives at place de la Nation
The first elements of the large parade enter the place de la Nation.

When Found, First is the End and Last is the Middle

Paris:- Thursday, 1. May 1997:- Although one of France's major union leaders characterized May Day as being the World's General Strike Day, this is my third May Day on the job. The big difference this year, is the sun is shining very warmly and brightly.

I think the Paris newspaper publishers see it the same way - the 'General Strike' - because they are extremely reluctant to publish details about the when and where of the traditional parade, and as it takes a different route through Paris each year - it is a bit of a puzzle. Maybe I should renew my union membership.

Le Parisien put the starting point at place de la Republique, the start time as 13:00 and the destination as place de la Nation. Last year, I had less information, so I went to a bar at place de la Bastille and asked, because I figure people around the Bastille should know these things.

The shortest way from Republique to Nation is by way of boulevard Voltaire in the 11th arrondissement, and when I arrive at Bastille today I find this out by looking at a métro map. I have come to Bastille, Red commie anti-Chirac because there is the big 'modern art' fair here and I think I can get an idea whether it is worth covering, and then easily catch the parade as well.

Good-humored marcher with a very red T-shirt and handmade cardboard sign.

So I get a ticket for the 'modern art' thing first and look at the métro map second. Oh-oh; the parade's not here - there too much 'art' around - so it must be taking the boulevard Voltaire. No problem; I'll just walk over, take the rue de Charonne and see all of it on the way.

I do this by going around the place, past the Opéra and the rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine - which also goes to Nation - and go into the funky rue de la Roquette because I remember that it starts one way and then heads east. It does, but it does not run into the rue de Charonne as I thought - so I get to see all of rue de la Roquette instead.

At the place Léon Blum, I know I am in the right place. The muguet - lily of the valley - sellers are standing by waiting for the parade, there is a police presence, and everybody knows about Léon Blum and the 'Front Populaire.' This place is tradition with a capital 'T.' I go into a good big bar and have a glass of water and check out solid positions from which to take photos. I reload the other camera. I look at my watch.

I know from past years that it can take a bit of time to get 50,000 people marching in the same direction, especially if they belong to unions which don't always see eye-to-eye - but today should be great.

There's this solidarity around, on account of the upcoming elections, and the Socialists are doing deals with the Communists and with the Greens, so they won't compete with each other; so they can shut out the Front National entirely and beat the pants off the conservatives. Political Science majors would love it.

After twenty minutes the place Léon Blum looks exactly the same. I can't see any sign of activity by looking up Voltaire towards Republique. It is warm, it is sunny, and this place is pretty quiet. There is a cop across the street looking at his official street guide.

With the water to cool me off, I am ready but calm. When I cross Voltaire to where the cop is, I realize that this place is only a couple of blocks from Gilbert Shelton's atelier. There seems to be plenty of time and I wander down there, looking at public benches and wondering if I can stand on them to shoot over heads.

It's a holiday and warm and I don't think Gilbert will be in his office, but it's only a short hop off the boulevard, so Marchers at Bastille I go over and knuckle his door, which looks like it belongs to an abandoned and failed novelty business. I almost pop out of my shoes when I immediately hear the interior locks ungrinding from top to bottom - and there stands Gilbert.

In the middle of the parade, as some of the marchers go through the place de la Bastille.

He seems surprised the sun is shining like blazes on his shopfront and when I mention the parade, he locks up and we go over to the boulevard and sit down on a modest café terrace.

This is very good. Sitting on a terrace, having somebody - the father of the Freak Brothers no less - to pass the time with. A guy is sleeping at another table and the owner comes out and tells him to consume something or buzz off. The guy changes tables and goes back to sleep.

Then this lady who is walking along stops at our table. At first I figure she is just a friendly talk-to-strangers sort of person, because it is a warm day and sort of mellow on the quiet boulevard Voltaire, but after she sits down I learn she is Dava and she's visiting Shelton.

The owner comes out with a helper and they tell the sleeping guy to buzz off again, and he has a short fight with a parasol before lurching away towards the place. About four o'clock I look at my watch and wonder where the May Day parade is.

Where we are sitting can't be a three-hour walk from Republique. Fifty thousand people couldn't have passed by without us noticing.

I am worried. 'My' parade is lost. If I can't find it, all I'll have is the 'art' thing and I have no high hopes for it. So I do the goodbyes with Dava and Gilbert and shove off towards place le la Nation with the feeling that it'll be all over when I arrive.

As I get closer there are more people coming my way, which is a bad sign. There is more litter too; another sign. But when I can see the big place, I do not see the signs of a big party unwinding. There is a small Sunday-type crowd scattered around, and when I go to see what a crowd of people are doing I find they are men playing boules under the trees.

Where is 'my' parade? I ask a lady who has a good vantage spot on the boulevard Voltaire, and she assures me the parade is about to arrive - it started from Republique at 15:00, and started late as usual too. Both of us see nothing happening down boulevard Voltaire.

Before I can decide to walk back down and rejoin Dava and Gilbert on the café terrace, a passing 'militant' tells us the parade is arriving - from the rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine. He's right. The parade went through Bastille after all!

I ask a cop how to get across the wide street to the centre of the place and he tells me to walk - the traffic has been stopped. So it has. In the centre I can climb up a bit, in front of a huge statue, and have an unobstructed view.

A fleet of cop cars comes first, followed by a music and sound truck. The street slopes down a bit so it is impossible to tell how many marchers there are, but their balloons are big and colorful and it looks great.

Because these things can be so huge and I am a crew of one, I have already considered just taking one shot, and picking up the rest of the photos from TV-news. The angle of the camera's lens picks up too much scenery and not enough parade. I take two shots and find the métro.

At Bastille, where I surface, the parade is coming out of the boulevard Beaumarchais or Richard Lenoir, just skimming the place de la Bastille and passing into the rue Faubourg Saint Antoine, and I get this from up Parade arrives at Nation on the steps of the Opéra. This is too far away too. Since the music is dance rather than 'march' I get right down to where they are and get the shots there.

It was a long walk, but the parade finally arrives at the place de la Nation.

A car tries to get through the rue de la Roquette and union members have it quickly plastered with Communist and CGT stickers, in a friendly way, and parade marshals have it unstickered just as quickly. They have no stickers left for me.

This has been more shots than intended and kills the chance for the 'art marché' and I have been all afternoon on this job, when I could have stayed at Bastille in the first place - if only I had gone to the café I was at last year, where they told me where to find last year's May Day parade.

At home, I miss the first four minutes of TV-news, and the following thirty minutes has no coverage of the parade - only about the Front National's - which took place a comfortable three kilometres away.

I have never been in so much fog on a clear day before; but altogether I have had a good time in the air and was close enough to the parade at Bastille - by chance! - to get good vibrations from it - this festive 'universal general strike.' As it is a national holiday, it is a paid one.

If the papers have any details about it - such as numbers involved - you will find these in this week's 'Au Bistro' column.


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