Red Flags on May Day

Red Banners (17k)

Workers March to Bastille, Again

Beginning of the March (14k)
The beginning, at Gare du Nord.
Paris:- Wednesday, 1. May 1996:- Forecast for today, from last night: Paris lies between two wet fronts. This morning, FIP Radio traffic report says the right bank is blocked; the first 'manifestation' is under way - without saying who it is - so it must be the nationalists. It is not safe to ignore them, but it is distasteful to give them any lines of press notice.

'My' manifestation, my May Day parade through the streets of Paris, is not mentioned. It is not in yesterday's Le Parisien; the paper that usually shows where the 'corks' stopping up the traffic will be - there is no today's Le Parisien because it is International Labor Day and nobody works. When I phone their editorial office, a janitor tells me there's nobody there.

At my train station, my Mr. SNCF - is working! - and I buy my tickets, knowing full-well that the controllers will not be in evidence and I head, via La Défense, to Place le la Bastille. Out of the Métro, I pop into this café there that has the right ambiance for types like me, and ask a waiter if he knows where the Communists are marching today. Starting Gare du Nord at 14:00 he thinks. I finish the café and pop back into the Métro and go there.

As soon as I next see daylight, I see red flags. I see smoke. I hear music - either Turkish or Kurdish; a lot of it all at once. There are grills going everywhere cooking sausages and red flags are everywhere, and women and kids, and workers. There is this big chaos in front of Gare du Nord, in the Place Napoléon III, and it reminds me of the bus stop that I once came through just outside Istanbul's western city walls.

All well and good all these Turks, but where are the French Communists and the labor union, CGT? It used to be, on May Day, that all the parties of the Left, and all their affiliated labor organizations, would join together and have one big monster super jumbo parade - as a gentle reminder to the 'other half' that somebody does the work in this country, that May Day is in honor of it, and in case you forget, everything is closed all day while the workers have 'their' party.

Except for public transport, and a few cafés, everything did seem to be closed. But the days of leftist solidarity in France seem to be over.

The American ideas of 'restructuring' or 'downsizing' or 'rationalization' have penetrated the main-stream left, and it is trying to accommodate itself to this new reality - whether it makes sense or not - and because it looks like the right is going to be in power for a long time.

Meanwhile, somewhere between the world of 'funky western civilization' and the third world, there are a whole slew of intermediate countries where workers want to get fundamental things that haven't quite shown up yet, like human rights for example - to have the right to a living wage and some job security - before they miss the boat and become victims of a new round of restructuring, downsizing or rationalization, without ever having had any of the good things that used to be gained by co-operation between capital and labor and the radical idea that workers bought things that other workers made; thus making everybody happy and prosperous.

Ahem, that is not only a long sentence, I'm not sure it makes any sense.

This afternoon in Paris, as the time for the parade launch approached; ordinary citizens, some carrying their own red flags, streamed upstreet past me to the assembly point, a vague mob behind the distant CGT balloons.

Half way down (11k)
The march begins to roll.
From my position a couple of blocks downstreet from the start line, on a traffic-light island, in the middle of the Boulevard Magenta, at the level of Gare de l'Est; all I could see were lots of official cars about two blocks away, some CGT balloons, and on either side of me were parked the usual caravan of CRS public security vans.
After holding my post 90 minutes, the monster at first crept, then was rolling down towards me. I took a shot and a TV cameraman leaped up on my left, another on my right. I got off another shot - and then I was swept away by a street-wide phalanx of CGT union security cadre - 'Get to the side!' - and like a clot of dirt on an angled bulldozer blade, that is where I went.

From the edge of the boulevard I got off another couple of shots, but I had the good ones already. As the parade - how many? - went crashing by, I slipped around the corner and dipped into the Métro again and went back to Bastille.

It is the location of a temporary art fair, down both sides of the canal St. Martin leading to the Seine - but also the destination of the marchers.

Bandstand at the Bastille (11k)
At Bastille, the band plays on.
The July column is decorated by tri-color rosettes at the top, and right in front of the Opéra Bastille, a bandstand had been set up. On deciding that they were playing 'Watermelon Man' - and the guy on the trumpet was worth listening to, although behind a screen of traffic, police whistles, smoke from hot grills all over the place - I took my last shot - with the Opéra Bastille as background - for today's popular demonstration.

As the return Métro train rammed its way westward underneath the streets of Paris, I read the tracts that had been handed to me - mostly by Turks - and read about a lot of bad things in Germany... that are always painted worse when you are outside that country... and in any case no worse than what goes on in France.

And I remembered the Turkish restaurant in Hamburg that used to be on the Mundsberger Damm near the big Alster, where they used that wonderful thumb-thick bread as a base for fantastic pizza. They had Pilsner Urquel on tap too, cheaper than anywhere else in the city. Nothing remotely like it in Paris, not at La Défense anyway and especially not today.

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