France’s political, personal and social divisions divisions were laid bare on the streets of Paris on Monday as May Day marches dominated by the final round vote in the presidential election saw violent clashes between police and masked youths.
Six riot police officers were injured, one with third-degree burns to his hand and face, in Paris when a group of about 150 people armed with molotov cocktails, stones and sticks hijacked the traditional May Day march organised by French unions.
Thousands had joined the celebration, with many using the occasion to protest against the far-right presidential candidate Marine le Pen and her party, the Front National. Police said 142,000 people attended May Day marches across France.
Shortly after the Paris march set off from the central Place de la République, a group with scarves covering their faces forced their way to the front and began throwing missiles at police, who responded with teargas. Some pulled masonry from the walls of buildings to throw at the police and several shopping bags and backpacks filled with stones and bottles were found.
Even before the violence, the march had got off on the wrong foot. Unable to agree on how best to confront the prospect of Le Pen becoming the country’s next president - by voting blank, abstaining or choosing Emmanuel Macron – the unions went their separate ways, with two organising a breakaway gathering in north Paris on Monday morning.
The main march took place hours later, when tens of thousands of people set off from Place de la République heading for Place de la Nation, via Bastille, three of the French capital’s most symbolic squares.
The eliminated hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon was given a rapturous welcome by supporters, leaving him close to tears. They carried banners calling for voters to shun the FN but, like their leader, none were publicly calling for a Macron vote.
“We have nothing in common with Mr Macron,” said Paul Vannier, who plans to stand for parliament as a candidate for Mélenchon’s France Unbowed movement in the legislative elections that follow later this month.
Other marchers carried banners rejecting both Le Pen’s nationalism and Macron’s
neoliberalism, reading “ ni patrie, ni patron ” – meaning “not homeland nor boss”.
The street battles erupted hours after Le Pen had laid into Macron at her final major rally in the capital. She appeared before a delirious crowd in north-east Paris, where supporters chanted: “This is our home.”
Le Pen described her rival as a candidate for the French “oligarchy”, adding that only she would bring change. “Today, the enemy of the French people is still the world of finance,” she said, calling on voters to “form a barrage against finance, arrogance, money as king”.
She said two “totalitarian ideologies” threatened France: “Globalisation and Islamism.”
Le Pen avoided the thorny subject of her pledged dumping of the euro currency and
withdrawal from the EU , viewed as unpopular with the wider public. She made a brief mention of Europe saying she would “negotiate with Brussels over the return of our sovereignty”.
The rightwing former candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan , who gained just under 5% of votes in the first round and has joined forces with Le Pen in return for the promise of becoming prime minister, opened the rally by telling flag-waving FN supporters: “We are united and we are ready not just to win, but to govern and to govern in the interests of all the French. And we will win, thanks to you.”
At his last major rally in Paris before the final vote, Macron he launched a scathing attack on Le Pen and the Front National describing them as agents of hatred seeking to divide France and stoke a civil war. He said they were “the party of disaster” stoking internal divisions in France.
“Don’t boo her! Fight her!” Macron said. “Make Le Pen lose next Sunday!” he shouted to the crowd, calling the Front National the party of “insults and obscenities”.
But after devoting much of his speech to attacking the Front National, Macron said he held no judgement on its voters themselves because they came from a feeling of “anger, indignation and distress”.
He said the only way to address that distress was to profoundly change the way French politics works. After France’s mainstream left and right parties who had dominated politics for half a century were eliminated in the first round of the presidential race, he said the “old order” had died and he reiterated his promise to reinvent French politics.
In a nod to Le Pen’s working-class and poorer voters in small towns and rural areas, Macron said he would recognise those who felt “forgotten” by the system. But he said he would not change his manifesto promise to loosen France’s strict labour laws. He insisted globalisation could not be abandoned but that it could be changed.
Macron has sought to galvanise French Republican opposition to Le Pen and highlight what he calls the risks of a far-right party of “hatred” with visits in recent days to a Holocaust memorial and a village that saw the worst Nazi massacre of civilians on French soil.
Earlier on Monday he attended a commemoration to Brahim Bouarram, a young Moroccan man who drowned after he was thrown into the Seine by FN supporters on 1 May 1995. But divisions on the left and cautiousness towards Macron were still evident following its defeat in the first round presidential vote a week ago: Mélenchon and Paris’s Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, also attended the ceremony, but all three were present at different times.
Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of the presidential candidate, attended the FN’s traditional wreath-laying at the statue of the party’s heroine, Joan of Arc , in central Paris. He promised a combative speech, but five minutes in his microphone failed . He had told them Marine Le Pen was “the daughter of France”.
“She’s not Joan of Arc, but she’s taken on the same mission as Joan did,” he said, adding that he thought her presidential campaign was not aggressive enough. Several hundred supporters present chanted: “France for the French.”
His granddaughter, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, and other party heavyweights snubbed the event and chose to lay flowers at another statue of Joan of Arc on the other side of Paris.