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May 4, 2014

La Fête du Travail – The Marching Season Begins

by soundlandscapes

THE FIRST OF MAY is a public holiday in France, La Fête du Travail or Labour Day as it’s known in some countries.

Traditionally, the First of May is also the day when Lily of the Valley, or Muguet, is sold everywhere on streets across France as a of the symbol of springtime and of good luck.


Muguet (Lily of the Valley) being distributed in rue de Rivoli

La Fête du Travail is primarily an opportunity to campaign for and to celebrate workers’ rights and in Paris many people take to the streets to make their voices heard.

For me, as a sonic journalist and dedicated collector of the sounds of Paris, the First of May always marks the start of the Parisian marching season. I know that over the next few months I will spend many hours on the streets capturing the sounds of marches, demonstrations and protests covering every shade of political opinion.

In Paris it’s become traditional for the two extremes of political opinion to take to the streets on the First of May. In the morning the right-wing Front National march from the Palais-Royal to Place de l’Opéra and in the afternoon the left-wing Socialists and Trades Unions march from Place de la Bastille to Place de la Nation. I used to record both of these marches each year but latterly I’ve taken to recording them alternately, the left one year and the right the next.

This year it was the turn of the Front National and so an hour before the march was due to begin I arrived in the Place des Pyramides in front of Emmanuel Frémiet’s gilded statue of Jeanne d’Arc, heroine to the far right, and jostled with the seasoned TV and Radio crews and the press photographers to get the best vantage point.


I recorded the march as it approached along the rue de Rivoli and then passed the statue of Jeanne d’Arc and then I followed it to the Place de l’Opéra.


Front National March:

Two things struck me about this year’s march. First, the last time I recorded this Front National march was in 2012 and my impression was that there were more marchers then than there were this year. I have no statistical evidence to base that on but it was just my impression. And second, although this year’s marchers were vociferous, they seemed to me to be a little more subdued than in 2012.


If, like me, you are a seasoned observer of Parisian political marches and demonstrations from whatever part of the political spectrum, you cannot fail to be impressed by the importance that sound plays. I believe that the rhythm and constant repetition of the chants not only gives everyone a voice but it also acts as a means of discipline.


As an outside observer on the street, you can see that the rhythm and repetition of the chanting has an almost hypnotic effect on the marchers – although I doubt that they would probably accept that. In any of these political marches there are leaders who dictate what the chant should be, the pace and the rhythm of the chant and how many times it should be repeated and then there are the followers who do exactly that, follow the leader’s command.

It seems to me that through this constant chanting the marchers not only have a voice but they feel that their voice is being heard.


I am convinced that the power of sound through rhythm and constant repetition is the main reason why marches like this seldom become unruly or descend into mindless violence.


I followed the march to Place de l’Opéra but, unlike in 2012, I didn’t stay to record the speeches. Instead I had a fascinating chat with a French radio reporter who gave me a guided tour of her Nagra ARES C sound recorder before she went off to file her report for the lunchtime news bulletin.


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