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Letter from Paris

The French do mass demonstration very well. The manif is the closest this lapsed Catholic society gets to the rapture of Mass

By Lucy Wadham   May 2009

May in France is a heady month, in which the nation embraces its dual heritage of rebellion and leisure. At least three and sometimes four of the country’s 15 public holidays fall in May and this year, the workforce can look forward to a month peppered with long weekends and industrial action. Emboldened by the success of four general strikes since January, France’s leading trade unions intend to make May day “the new crowning moment of mobilisation.”

On 1st May, the nation’s deep ambivalence towards the idea of work seems to crystallise. Legally inaugurated in 1941 as la fête du travail by none other than Marshal Pétain (the only French leader apart from Sarkozy to champion le travail as a value), France’s Labour day has tended to be a celebration not of work, but of the struggle to liberate mankind from work. People like to remember 1st May 1936, when Leon Blum’s Popular Front, days away from power, organised a pageant of activism and solidarity that heralded the very real joys of the 40-hour week and the paid holiday. Or else 1st May 1968, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit was summoned to appear before the disciplinary board of the Sorbonne and the spark was lit for les événements. They recall 1st May 2002, which saw 400,000 Parisians marching against Le Pen’s presence in the second round of the presidential elections.

Indeed, most Parisians go misty-eyed at that memory. Haunted by the spectre of Vichy, my children’s generation made banners saying “Abstention = Collaboration,” “Better to be screwed by Chirac than raped by Le Pen” or “We are all immigrants.” The French do mass demonstration very well. They embrace that atmosphere of collective euphoria, of dissolution in the throng with a gusto it is hard to imagine in our restrained and leery Protestant culture. The manif is the closest this lapsed Catholic society gets to the rapture of Mass, and on May day all sides of the political spectrum submit with joy.

To members of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, 1st May is their day. It is the fête de Jeanne d’Arc, a bogus commemoration dreamed up by Le Pen in 1988 in a clever bid to co-opt a national symbol. That year, Le Pen scored an unprecedented 14.4 per cent of the vote in the first round. Ever the showman, he improvised his rally around the figure of Joan of Arc in order to maximise his impact on the second round. He chose 1st May rather than 8th May (the actual anniversary of Joan of Arc’s liberation of Orleans in 1492) precisely because it fell between the two rounds.

In that perpetual tussle to wrench the worker’s vote from the left, Le Pen called his May day rally la fête du travail et de Jeanne d’Arc. The extreme left perceive Jeanne as a daughter of the people, but long ago gave up battling the Catholic church for ownership of her. Disenfranchised by the separation of church and state in 1905, French Catholicism fought for the canonisation that in 1920 would make Jeanne definitively theirs. Struggle as they might to keep faith with the workers, May day in 1988 was the beginning of the end for the French Communist party, whose already declining share of the vote never recovered.

This year, May day will see a brand new anti-capitalist party, the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA), hitting the Paris streets a few kilometres away from their archenemies gathered at the foot of Joan’s statue. Freshly formed this year under the impetus of Olivier Besancenot, nicknamed the “red postman” because of his day job as a postal carrier, the NPA is an attempt to unify the atomised parties of the anti-liberal left. It has a wonderfully Soviet logo, but with a brandished megaphone in lieu of sickle. News of this new political force was greeted with glee by Nicolas Sarkozy. Le Monde claimed he took the socialist leader, François Hollande, aside to gloat: “The right took 20 years to sort out the problem of the extreme right. Now it’s your turn!”

May is the month when France is full-blown. All its contradictions are on display: its love of rebellion and politics, its passion for leisure and indulgence, its traditionalism, even its rather patriarchal romanticism, symbolised by the sprigs of Lily of the Valley that every husband is expected to offer in homage to his wife. Milou en Mai (1990), a film by Louis Malle, offers the most evocative picture of the effect that the combination of spring and politics has on French consciousness. It is a study of a bourgeois family marooned in their country estate with a lorry driver and his militant nephew during the May ’68 uprisings. Returning to their childhood home in the wake of their mother’s death, the heirs are poised to squabble over their inheritance. But instead they give way to the intoxicating spirit of revolution and renewal. Scenes of lazy sunny picnics take place to the tune of L’Internationale on the accordion. I doubt you could find a better soundtrack for this year’s footage of Paris on the May day march.

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