This year's May Day labour celebration in France is like no other as trade unions, supporters of incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and the country’s far right simultaneously hit the streets of Paris five days before the final presidential vote.
Falling five days before France picks its next president, this year’s International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, stands as a high-stakes campaign event for rivaling political camps.
Trade unions traditionally allied with the political left, supporters of incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, and the surging far-right National Front (FN) party, are holding competing rallies in Paris on the traditional May 1 labour movement celebration.
The parading red flags of the leading CGT union usually dominate May Day in France, but the imminent May 6 presidential runoff between Sarkozy and Socialist Party challenger François Hollande has made for an altogether different national holiday this year.
Fifteen years after being kicked out of the Elysée presidential palace, the Socialists are hoping the march will add momentum to Hollande’s campaign and help sweep them back into power.
Trailing in opinion polls, and with a meagre two weeks between the first and second round of the presidential elections, Sarkozy is hoping to upstage his opponents by gathering voters in a historic counter-celebration of what he calls "real work".
Finally, buoyed up by a record-high 18 percent score in the first round of the elections, the FN is gathering members for its annual march from Paris’ Opera to the foot of the equestrian statue of Saint Joan of Arc at the Place des Pyramides.
The French media have highlighted the battle for May Day as a symbol of the growing divisions. “Choose your camp,” sarcastically quipped Nicolas Demorand, director of the left-leaning Libération daily in an editorial on Monday. “The Berlin Wall has been rebuilt in the middle of Paris, just like in the good old days of the Cold War.”
Tradition meets election
The May Day march organised by France’s unions is the event expected to assemble the most participants on Tuesday. Driven by over a century of tradition and irked by what they saw as Sarkozy’s attempt to usurp their celebration, union workers and French left-wingers will march from Denfert-Rochereau in central Paris to the capital’s iconic Place de la Bastille.
"May 1 is about history, May 1 is about a desire for social change, May 1 is about international solidarity,” said Danielle Tartakowsky, professor of contemporary history at Paris University VIII, on France 3 television on Monday.
Unions call for May Day show of force
Tartakowsky added that while the holiday was observed across the world, May 1 was revered like a religious feast by some in France’s powerful CGT union. Also the country's largest union, the CGT also honours nine factory workers killed in northern France in 1891 and the date French workers won the right to paid vacations on May 1, 1936.
However, this year’s May Day is hard to dissociate from the election. After three consecutive defeats to the right in presidential elections in 1997, 2002 and 2007, the French left is tipped to stage a comeback.
Hollande announced he would be traveling to the central city of Nevers to pay tribute to Pierre Beregovoy, a former Socialist prime minister, who committed suicide on May 1, 1993. He explained he would not be in Paris because May Day belonged “to workers and unions” and that he wanted it “to be respected”.
The 'real work' controversy
Hollande’s “respectful” absence was not just a wink to the left-leaning unions, but a calculated slight at incumbent Sarkozy, who has been slammed by critics for calling for an alternative demonstration.
The day after the first round of the elections, Sarkozy announced on BFM television that he was calling for a rally to celebrate “real work”. The statement was made as a jibe to what he said were people who preferred to collect unemployment benefits and state handouts rather than hard-earned wages.
The backlash was large enough that the incumbent was forced to retract his comment. Nevertheless, he is pushing ahead with a rally near the Eiffel tower, which will seek to steal at least some of the media spotlight from the traditional unionist march. “I was not aware that the CGT and Mr. Hollande had privatised May 1,” Sarkozy joked several times on the campaign trail.
Sarkozy has sought to discredit Hollande and the Socialists on economic policy, saying their programme would ruin France and bring about a Greek-style debt crisis. He has called on France’s “silent majority” to rise and hand him another five-year mandate.
By choosing to defy the May Day ritual, Sarkozy was not only taking aim at left-wingers, but also far-right voters he needs to pull off an upset in Sunday's election. Until now, the FN has been the only modern political party in France to hold its own parallel May Day event.
Waiting on Le Pen
Starting in 1988, far-right figurehead and FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen called on “patriots” to assemble in Paris on May 1 to honour Joan of Arc, the French Catholic saint and martyr who died at the hands of the English.
At the time, the event was a direct affront to the union holiday and part of Le Pen’s consistent efforts to resist then Socialist president François Mitterand.
His daughter Marine Le Pen, who has taken over as the FN’s leader and presidential candidate, has honoured the Joan of Arc rally as a family tradition with a few important adjustments.
In the late 1980s, Jean-Marie Le Pen hoped to forge an agreement with the right to push Mitterand out of power. But the FN’s priorities have since shifted, and an alliance with Sarkozy would today be unthinkable.
Still brimming with excitement at her best-ever election score in the April 22 first round poll, Marine Le Pen is looking at France as wide open political territory. Telling supporters to “vote with their conscience” on Tuesday, she added that her own vote would be a blank one.