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01.05.2019 Europe

French May Day rallies see peaceful marches and violent clashes

REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
MAY 1, 2019 EUROPE

Trade unions teamed up with Yellow Vest protesters in many French cities on Wednesday for May Day demonstrations under heightened security. More than 7,400 police were deployed in Paris, the main focus of the action, which briefly saw clashes between riot police and so-called "Black Bloc" protesters.

Around 40,000 people took part in the May Day demonstrations in Paris according to a tally by several French media. The Interior Ministry put this number much lower, estimating that no more than 16,000 had taken to the streets of the French capital by 2pm local time. Overall, the ministry said that there were 151,000 protesters nationwide.

Security was tight amid fears of a repeat of last year's May 1st violence where police were caught off guard by over 1,000 trouble-makers who ran amok in the capital.

Paris was again the focus this time round with several groups on social media urging protesters to transform the city into the "capital of rioting," according to interior minister Christophe Castaner.

While scuffles did briefly erupt along Montparnasse Boulevard with riot police firing off several rounds of tear gas and using water cannons to disperse the crowds that had been infiltrated by so-called "Black Bloc" rioters, the situation remained calm elsewhere.

More than 230 May Day protests were organised nationwide, all of which went smoothly with the exception of Paris, according to the CGT union.

In Marseille, the union said that 30,000 people took to the streets. The police estimate was significantly lower at 5,500, of which 1,200 were Yellow Vest protesters.

An estimated 6,400 protesters, including 1,300 Yellow Vests, marched in Bordeaux, according to the police. The CGT put this number higher at 10,000.

Demonstrations were also held in the cities of Strasbourg, Lyon and Toulouse, drawing crowds of around 2,000, according to Reuters.

Unions denounce police tactics
Nonetheless, the police's "heavy-handed" response in Paris came under criticism.

Philippe Martinez, the secretary general of France's nation trade union group CGT, accused them of "charging against unionists who were clearly identifiable", rather than the hardline "Black Bloc"protesters who are provoking police and causing damage to public property.

Paris police responded by denying the claims on Twitter, arguing that "trade unionists have never been the target".

Officers made over 200 arrests and carried out pre-emptive searches as part of new powers accorded to them by a recent security law to curb Yellow Vest violence.

Since November, Paris has struggled to cope with the weekly protests, which have often descended into chaos with a handful of thugs smashing up and torching shops and restaurants.

Across the city, streets were barricaded off and shops boarded up their windows in preparation for the worst.

"We are not afraid of the union marches but of these black blocs," local restaurant owner Serge Tafanel told AFP.

After Macron's speech
This year's marches came less than a week after a major policy speech by President Emmanuel Macron promising significant tax cuts in a bid to quell nearly half a year of street protests.

The Yellow Vests however rejected the measures as too little too late.

"He only gave us crusts," 23-year old Nicolas B. told RFI. "We wanted something big, and what he gave us is not what we want."

Protesters notably want to hold a citizens' initiative referendum to decide future policies and a better share of the country's riches.

Although their numbers have steadily fallen, the movement has remained in the headlines largely over disorder by a handful of violent protesters along the famed Champs-Elysées avenue.

Keeping May Day spirit alive
Like the yellow vests, France's major unions too were disappointed by Macron's speech.

They were hoping to use the traditional May march for workers' rights to raise their profile after finding themselves sidelined for months by the grassroots movement.

"We must be careful not to lose the meaning of this day," the CGT's Philippe Martinez warned.

"It is a day of mobilisation which deserves our full attention after Emmanuel Macron's announcement in which he said: 'I hear you and I'm not changing anything.'"