Paris: United May Day march attacked by police

By Rémy Herrera
May 16, 2019

Herrera is a Marxist economist and researcher at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He works at the Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, Paris, he attended the May Day march in Paris. and he wrote this article May 5, in staff translation here. 

On this May 2, in the year of our Lord 2019, they were celebrating, with great pomp and circumstance at the Royal Castle of Amboise on the banks of the Loire, the half-millennium of Leonardo da Vinci’s death; his presumed grave is said to have been preserved in the chapel of the said castle.

May Day march in Paris

On this occasion, as honorary president of the foundation that owns the modest residence, the Count of Paris, Jean d’Orléans, a pretender to the throne of France and descendant of the sovereigns Louis XIII, XIV and XV (but also, among others, the wigged and crowned heads of Emperor Francis I of Austria, Duke Philip Albert of Württemberg, Princess Rosa Mary of Tuscany, King Ferdinand VII of Spain, King John VI of Portugal and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil!) had the distinct privilege of receiving the president of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, and his Italian counterpart, Sergio Mattarella. Kisses to the first ladies, delicate reverences and the required precise bows.

All these well-born nobles, well-coiffed, pumped up, full of class contempt for “Jojo the Yellow Vest” and the “toothless ones,” live as parasites, coddled in their bubble, pampered by their “security forces,” guards of the capitalist established order and turned against the people. They still block the path to a better world, the one we want, we, the vast majority. The one we will eventually build. The one that calls out for justice, reason, even wisdom.

Among the many reasons for the tributes paid to the Florentine polymath genius, one escaped the attention of the mainstream media. Five hundred years after the death of the Mona Lisa’s creator, at a time when, under the pressure of the high finance magnates, history seems to have made a permanent about-face, regressed and then set out again, in a modernity in which the rights conquered by the workers have been thrown into the incinerator, where national architectural treasures older than the Renaissance go up in smoke, when France is momentarily presided over by a false apprentice, a penny-ante amateur of Da Vinci’s chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques, which he reinterprets loosely, for his own needs.

We know, from the 15 paintings that Leonardo da Vinci has sent to France, how much the Tuscan master, humanist and eclectic excelled in the pictorial art of interweaving zones of light and shade, “in chiaroscuro” as he called it; how he also knew, by means of soft, fluid, patiently repeated, translucent layers, how to make the contour lines gradually indistinct and vaporous — thus “smoky,” said the painter in conceptualizing the sfumato. Hence the enigmatic and elusive smile of his Mona Lisa.

And what do we have from now on?

We are entitled to the chiaroscuro, the smoke and mirrors of President Macron. And as a bonus, to the blows of his police baton! The Macronian chiaroscuro of his micro-proposals of Dec. 10, then April 25, when everyone clearly understands that the darkness is nothing but cunning, venom, confusion and perfumed manure; when no one can believe that they will bring anything positive, in any field, to change life for better living.

Following “work more to earn more,” the slogan of [rightist former President] Nicolas Sarkozy, Macron has come up with “work more — because the French are lazy! – you may earn a few more euros (under strict conditions), but, in the end, you’ll continue to lose.”… The Macronian sfumato is the smoke and mirrors of his “Great Debate bla-bla,” it is the ambiguity of his pseudo solutions of “exit from the crisis” without the slightest “change of course,” it is the mustard gas of his tens of thousands of tear gas grenades fired on a rebellion!

May Day off to a strong start

The  220 demonstrations that took place throughout France on May 1 brought  together nearly 310,000 people. For now, let us focus on the parade in Paris that brought together 80,000 people (unions’ attendance figures). The major labor unions were the chief organizers of the parade as they always are on May Day.  It was really special.

Let us start at the beginning. The initial rally point was planned for Montparnasse, south of the capital. The procession was supposed to start at 2:30 p.m.  Nevertheless, by midday, the police — who also came in droves — had their own event with the workers.

Many demonstrators were already there around noon  at the foot of the Montparnasse tower. Tens of thousands of people had arrived, including labor union activists, members of the Yellow Vest movement and the Black Bloc [anarchists].  Ecological activists were also there. Police headquarters had banned their march on the climate crisis, which was planned for that morning in the Latin Quarter. They had all passed through the barriers of “preventive controls” installed by the police, who were stopping the new arrivals, searching backpacks and confiscating masks, protective glasses and helmets.

At around 12:15 p.m. to 12:30 p.m., as the usual peaceful preparations were being made, the procession of trade unionists with thousands of demonstrators, committed marchers, a large number of Yellow Vests, a few Black Bloc groups, and others advanced toward the beginning of the route. They overtook the unions’ markers and vans and took the lead of the entire group.

Sudden, brutal police attack

Regular cops and CRS riot police immediately cut off the march and blocked the surrounding streets. Then they fired powerful gas grenades into the air at the dense crowd and tear gas pellets at ground level. If there were any warnings ordering the people to desist, no one heard them. First came the blows from police clubs.  Then bottles were thrown, and there were clashes with the protesters. In the confusion inside the crowd and in reaction to the rush, demonstrators had to push back as best they could toward the starting point.

This set the tone. Nothing could have upset the demonstrators more and gotten them angrier. This was a police provocation.  And for what purpose? Injured people with bloody faces were treated by street medics, heroic volunteers. Chants of “Here it goes!” “Revolution! ” and “Anti-capitalist!” were widely repeated and applauded.

Until 2:15 p.m., those who arrived on time in Montparnasse were harrassed by police as described. The preemptive police intervention immediately plunged the crowd into panic. It was a remarkably well-organized mess caused by the harsh instructions of the Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner and his new police prefect, Didier Lallement.

Before marching out in the clouds of smoke, people had to run in all directions to seek refuge somewhere — under a building’s porch, into an unbarricaded shop nearby or toward the nearest adjacent street to be able to breathe and try to open their eyes. Union balloons were gone, banners were trampled, orchestras were dislocated and lunch snacks were trampled.  Groups of friends were scattered, haggard.

The president had warned everyone that those who joined the protests were accomplices of the “casseurs” [breakers], the looters and the Black Blocs. In the trendy French democracy of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en marche [The Republic on the march], participating in International Workers’ Day was undertaken at one’s own risk.

A tag placed near La Rotonde, a famous luxury restaurant, proclaimed: “Repression on the march.” Its windows were protected by wooden boards.  Macron had celebrated there in anticipation of his victory against ultra-rightist Marine Le Pen, on April 23, 2017, the evening of the first round of presidential elections

Among the many who paid the price of the cops’ violent attack on the demonstration was General Confederation of Labor (CGT) Secretary General Philippe Martinez. However, since the beginning of the Yellow Vests’ mobilization in November, he has been overly cautious and reluctant to openly support the protests.  He was trying to keep the Confederation away from the popular rebellion, even though his union’s rank-and-file members have been demonstrating with the Yellow Vests since they began — on a daily basis in the streets. Union members have constantly pushed the CGT leadership to be more resolutely committed to working alongside the Yellow Vests.

Police attack Paris May Day march

Everyone marched together, faced cops

However, everyone marched together on May 1, a happy thing. However, the police violence was unprecedented.  Parade security forces were targeted. Clearly identifiable CGT members were repeatedly attacked and beaten by police. Martinez, who was positioned at the front of the labor union procession, had to be hastily spirited away by his security guards. A lot of  other demonstrators were brutalized, too; many people suffered at the hands of the police.

Some people may have claimed that Black Bloc forces wanted to move forward to attack CGT leaders, but witnesses at the scene saw police attack members of the CGT and Solidaires unions with no provocation. The Paris Police Prefecture quickly denied what many eyewitnesses observed — that labor unionists had been deliberately attacked.

About an hour and a half after the procession was finally allowed to enter the march route, the same attack on demonstrators took place as on Boulevard de l’Hôpital. CRS riot police charged the union parade and again targeted its security guards. The same siege took place near Place d’Italie at the end of the day as had happened at the start of the parade.  The mass of demonstrators who had the courage to arrive were forced to retreat again under waves of water cannons and a flood of tear gas grenades.

Under such conditions, is it surprising to learn that these innovative policing methods — encouraging the cops to make physical “contact” — caused relatively harsh clashes to take place at the end of the march route?

State, media try to stop march

In other words, the Parisian parade, in addition to having twice the number of participants as attended last year, according to the CGT, was tense. In the days leading up to May 1, the Ministry of the Interior was sending out communiqués and tweets spewing propaganda — generously relayed by the domesticated media — meant to dramatize the situation, to frighten and strongly dissuade people from going on the march.  In short, it was intended to prevent the Workers’ Day parade from taking place.

The alarmist media hype forewarned that this May Day would be “the worst,”  “the apocalypse” and a “civil war.” It promised that Paris would become the “capital of the riot.”  Therefore, those who chose to join the march and the struggle this year had to overcome widespread apprehension and fear — which was skillfully manipulated from the top by political authorities.

A result of this fear campaign was that no children marched in this year’s parade. Today, people in France can no longer march as a family. Everyone thought of the mind-boggling and incredible, but very real police attacks on the Yellow Vest movement in the last six months which have caused terrible injuries, disfigurements, loss of limbs and eyes, and amputations.

For this May Day parade  — after 25 weeks of mobilizing by the Yellow Vests, and more than two years of workers fighting against “labor laws” — 7,500 members of the security forces, wearing armor and equipped for combat, had been deployed in the capital.

Throughout the route from Montparnasse to Place d’Italie, this overwhelming, oppressive police presence crushed and enclosed the processon, as if it was a trap. The police regularly interrupted the march by forming bottlenecks, closing off surrounding streets and dividing it into smaller sections to “better manage it.” Cops surrounded it, muzzled it and blocked it, sometimes prohibiting entry or exit. They choked it by gassing people. And they prevented it from completing its journey. In many places, police launched offensives, suddenly charging everyone and everything in their path and removing targeted individuals, according to the new doctrine being implemented.

‘We have to struggle for unity’

It is in this complicated, often confusing, sometimes chaotic context that Yellow Vests and red ponchos of the unionists have learned to blend in on the streets of Paris. Also true of those wearing black T-shirts. The desire for convergence was very widely shared and affirmed by the demonstrators.

They are not all marching to the same beat, but many demands overlap, such as “We have to struggle for unity,” “We have no choice,” “This is an emergency” and “Everything can change for the better or for the worse.”

However, what we must be aware of now is that the techniques of governance and policing in chiaroscuro and sfumato implemented by the Elysée lead to an imperceptible erasure of the border lines of democracy, to the shift from the standards of the rule of law to trivializing state violence. By juxtaposing the photos, the overall luminosity darkens, dark gradations alter the clarity of the beautiful society of human rights, the features become more uncertain under the smooth and invisible glaze of a managed authoritarianism. Unrecognizable, France is gradually enveloping itself in an unbreathable atmosphere.

The French ruling classes have managed to numb a large number of France’s population to the army’s bombardments of people in the global South.  Now they are trying to make the people of France indifferent to the misfortunes, suffering and repression that overwhelm the poorest and least fortunate among their compatriots at home by exhuming the figure of the “inner enemy.”

With police clubs, tear gas and crude lies, President Macron and his government — the only ones responsible for this outburst of violence on May 1 — are leading the country straight down the path of a transition resembling the entryway into a form of neofascism that dares not say its name. This would be smooth, reformed neofascism, with a distinguishing feature: It smiles. But it is still frightening

It represents the dictatorial power of state authorities who represent high finance capitalism; they simulate popular participation while at the same time dissolving social ties and draining the blood from the people, destroying their happiness.

This could be the new page in France’s history that this president is writing before for the people. It needs to be deciphered in a mirror. And as with Leonardo da Vinci’s, we need to decipher it in a mirror. The man who presents himself as “the rampart against the fascism” of Marine Le Pen looked in the mirror, he would see that he is none other than her double. Looking closely at this head of state who is being sold to the people with the image of the “best guarantor of democracy” shows that he is really its gravedigger. After all, didn’t he declare — shortly before the Yellow Vest insurrection erupted — that Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain was “also a great soldier”? [Petain headed the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government during World War II.]