May 1st has forever been a big day in France. Long before the invention of trade unions (credited today to the USA by a Paris radio station!) and street demonstrations, it was a day of festivities and magic. Pots and bunches of lilies of the valley are sold on street corners now as centuries ago, originally to erase the accumulated curses of the winter with their purity and delicate perfume, now, plus ça change, to bring good luck.
If Labor Day, not to mention the 2nd International, has lost all meaning in the the USA, where unions have been on life support since Reagan, in Europe, and especially France, May 1st invites hundreds of thousands into the streets, to chant, shoot off firecrackers, and brandish slogans about whatever irks them most. This year’s turnout, formally dedicated by the unions to continuing to resist the new retirement age of sixty-four, was larger than usual. In all France, 784,000 according to the authorities, 2.3 million according to the organizers. In such a wide range, where’s the truth?
I can witness to the crowd I milled with shortly past noon at Place de Republique, beginning of the demo: a few hundred. Over the next hours it would grow not only in size, but in violence. The initial ambiance of a popular celebration turned dark—black, in fact—after I had wandered off to find shelter from a sudden thunder burst, looking over my shoulder, fearing for the safety of the daredevils crawling up the immense statue of Dame Republic. (See photo.)
Five years ago I got my fill of explosions, shots and tear gas during the Gilets Jaunes marches. This year’s havoc included a policeman set on fire by a Molotov cocktail as the perpetrators cheered. The streets themselves burned, again. Country-wide,108 police wounded. Shops trashed, paving stones flung at cops, along with ‘cacatovs’—bombs filled with marinated dog shit and cat urine. Black Bloc is a different species from the Gilets Jaunes—meticulous planning in advance, potentially more lethal. Unhierarchical. But without goals or demands, other than the end of capitalism and all state authority. They are an international phenomenon, of course. How many hardcore in France seems to be an official secret. Several hundred? But amplified and protected, as they don their balaclavas and retrieve weapons and tools from where they were stashed a few days before, by a multitude of excited sympathizers, caught up in the moment. The looters go to work in their wake. Protest, or orgy?
Just who are the Black Bloc? Disaffected youth from the banlieues, one might guess, or, contrary-wise, students from the Sorbonne. Or disaffected farmers or immigrants. None of the above. According to an ‘imbedded journalist’ piece in Paris Match this week, they are mostly salaried every-men and -women, often parents, averaging age thirty. What is the lure of the thing, according to the Match reporter? The joys of bonding, solidarity, the adrenaline of youth—and pride in their handiwork.
This year saw 317 BBs arrested in Paris, many of whom, if not released for lack of hard evidence risk prison terms. French prisons, while they keep the adrenaline flowing, are not fun. By the way, this is pdv’s third May Day report in over a decade. How time flies. May ‘le premier Mai’ once again become a day of exchanged bouquets and workers expressing their grievances while celebrating in the street. Or has a one-way border been crossed? Adieu, les temps perdus?
Lily of the valley and violence. This was very enlightening. Thank you and please take care on these anarchic streets …. Love, Margot
Thank you, Margot. The streets are now calm, and extraordinarily clean after the rubbish workers’ strike. People sweeping gutters in front of their shops. (“You don’ know what you got till it’s gone, ” as the song says.)
Nice work. Vivid account free of “insider tips.” Nice.
Interesting article, Kai, thank you. It was surprising to learn about who the ‘black bloc’ really are.
Thanks for your comment, Rosemary. Be well!