IT HAS BECOME a tradition that on the first day of May each year sweet scented sprays of Lily of the Valley (Muguet in French) are sold on the streets across France as a symbol of springtime and good luck.
Amidst the sprays of Lily of the Valley on sale everywhere in Paris yesterday another tradition was playing out.
La Fête du Travail was the name given to several festivals that originated from the eighteenth century onwards to celebrate the achievements of workers. In France, la Fête du Travail merged with International Workers’ Day, a day originally established in the late nineteenth century as an annual day of protest to demand the eight-hour working day. Today, La Fête du Travail and International Workers Day are celebrated on May 1st and the day is a national public holiday.
In Paris it has become traditional for people representing the two extremes of the political spectrum to use the May 1st public holiday to take to the streets to make their voices heard.
On the morning of May 1st, the Front National representing the political far right hold their annual défilé from the Palais Royal to Place de l’Opéra pausing in Place des Pyramides to pay homage at the foot of Emmanuel Frémiet’s gilded statue of Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orléans and heroine to the far right. In the afternoon an assorted collection of organisations representing the far left gather in Place de la République and march along the Boulevard Voltaire to Place de la Nation.
For the past three years I’ve recorded the Front National event on May 1st rather than the event at République because, given the rise of Marine le Pen as Président of the Front National and the party’s increasing popularity with the French electorate, it seemed to me that this was likely to be the more newsworthy event.
This year though I decided it was time to redress the balance and forsake the Front National in favour of the far left manifestation on the other side of the city.
The manifestation beginning in Place de la République was jointly organised by the French Trades Unions, CGT (Confédération générale du travail), FSU (Fédération syndicale unitaire), Solidaires (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques) and l’Unsa (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes).
From the plethora of literature handed out along the route I was able to deduce that there were two main themes to the manifestation:
First, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on January 11th this year, democracy, peace and freedom of thought and expression are common goods that must be defended against all forms of totalitarianism, hate speeches, stigma and attempts to divide.
And second, against a background of austerity measures and reforms reducing workers’ rights and social protection in many European countries, these policies must be reversed and investment made in quality jobs and growth.
Sounds of le défilé de la Fête du Travail :
After many years of recording sounds in Paris I like to think that I’ve developed a journalist’s nose for a good story, or at the very least for being in the right place at the right time. But this year I’m afraid I got it wrong, the little spray of Lily of the Valley in my pocket failed to bring me good luck.
While standing in the rain for three hours recording this manifestation passing me in Boulevard Voltaire I was completely unaware that the news story of the day had already taken place elsewhere, at the Front National défilé at Place de l’Opéra!
During Marine le Pen’s speech there earlier in the day three bare-breasted women appeared on the balcony of a nearby hotel. The women from the Femen activist group unfurled banners linking the Front National’s logo with the Nazi party and had “Heil Le Pen” and “Stop Fascism” written across their chests. For five minutes, they drowned out Le Pen’s speech using a bullhorn.
I was particularly disappointed when I discovered what had happened, not because I have any affection for Marine le Pen and the Front National or that I’d missed seeing the topless women, in fact I’d seen them before when I was recording the International Women’s Day march in Paris a few weeks ago. No, my disappointment came from the realisation that I’d completely missed capturing an historic sound event that would have been a priceless addition to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
I am reminded of the great American poet, Maya Angelou, who in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I’m afraid that the sounds of the disruption at yesterday’s Front National rally are and are destined to remain my untold story.
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.
ONE YEAR AGO I stood in place de la Bastille amongst a jubilant crowd as they received the news that François Holland had been elected Président de la République, the first French socialist president to have been elected since François Mitterand back in 1981. I produced a piece for this blog about that evening in which I said, “As 8.00 pm approached the excitement became palpable and when the result became clear the party began.”
Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2012
One year on and the party’s over, the excitement has evaporated and the opinion polls show that François Hollande is now the most unpopular president in modern French history.
Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2013
On Sunday crowds once again filled place de la Bastille, not to celebrate but to protest at what they see as betrayal. In a nutshell, their argument is that François Hollande was elected last May on the back of a promise to spare France the austerity measures imposed elsewhere in Europe. Instead, the French government has cut spending, increased taxes, reduced hiring in the public sector and introduced plans to allow companies to cut workers’ hours during economic downturns. Meanwhile, France’s economy has continued to deteriorate, with growth stagnating and unemployment rising above 10%.
Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets on Sunday. According to the police they numbered 30,000 while the organisers, Le Front de Gauche, put the figure at 180,000. How the police and demonstration organisers always come up with such widely varying estimates of crowd numbers continues to baffle me. All I can say is that I was in place de la Bastille when the demonstration moved off on its march to place de la Nation and I was there three hours later as the tail end of the march was just setting off.
This demonstration was the brainchild of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche coalition. One time government minister and member of the French Senate, Mélenchon has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. He now heads the Front de Gauche comprising the Unitarian Left (Gauche Unitaire), the Federation for a Social and Ecological Alternative (Fédération pour une alternative sociale et écologique, FASE), Republic and Socialism (République et socialisme), Convergences and Alternative (Convergences et alternative), the Anticapitalist Left (Gauche anticapitaliste), the Workers’ Communist Party of France (Parti communiste des ouvriers de France, PCOF) and The Alternative (Les alternatifs).
Jean-Luc Mélenchon came to national prominence in 2010 during the huge demonstrations against pension reform and in 2012 he represented Le Front de Gauche in the French presidential election where he came in fourth place with 11.05% of the vote.
Marching under the banner Marche citoyenne pour la 6e République, the Front de Gauche want to see, according to one of the leaflets handed to me, a sweeping away of the current constitution and fundamental change to the way things are done – an end to the dominance of the financial markets, a democratisation of the institutions, more power to the people, new and greater rights to employees, a democratisation of elections with proportional representation and genuine independence of justice without conflicts of interest.
Marche citoyenne pour la 6éme République:
These street demonstrations are always colourful and loud and for the most part good-natured, although I will have something to say about that in a moment.
On Sunday there was the usual mix of serious minded protestors, occasional eccentrics and endless loudspeaker vans blasting out slogans and music at full volume often drowning out the chants of the marchers. The cacophony of sound can be overpowering especially to promiscuous microphones that pick up anything and everything. So for the sound hunter, capturing the atmosphere of such large demonstrations is a challenge.
In the sound piece above I’ve tried to give you a flavour of the atmosphere and to highlight some of the distinctive sounds. In the next piece, I will give you a flavour of what it’s like to walk amongst a crowd of tens of thousands of people. It’s a walk from the Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette, which on a normal day takes about two minutes. On Sunday it took me closer to twenty minutes (and I was lucky to do it that quickly) as I weaved my way through the throngs of people.
Walking from Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette:
My final sound piece though tells a different story.
As I said earlier, street demonstrations in Paris are usually pretty good-natured and pass off without any trouble. The largest demonstration I’ve attended was the massive protest against pension reform in 2010 when one million people took to the streets. Even with a demonstration of that size and with passions running very high, I saw nothing that could be described as trouble. On Sunday though, I saw something I’ve never seen before and I also learned something about the Front de Gauche.
This group of Africans were at the very back of the demonstration and it was them that I joined some three hours after the leading demonstrators had left place de la Bastille. True, unlike most of the other demonstrators, they were not protesting specifically about la finance et l’austérité although they all professed sympathy with the aims of the demonstration.
Their specific concern was for the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. They were demonstrating for the release of political prisoners in that country and in particular for the release of Simone Gbagbo. You can find out more about the former French colony of Côte d’Ivoire here.
To be honest, I know very little about Côte d’Ivoire other than what I occasionally glimpse on French TV news and, until Sunday, I wasn’t at all sure who Simone Gbagbo was. But these people clearly felt they had a point to make and they were doing it peacefully and with enthusiasm. In my experience it is quite usual for minority groups with off-piste interests to meld into large demonstrations.
All was well until the time came for them to move off and follow the tail end of the larger demonstration. I had moved slightly ahead of them when I was aware of a scuffle taking place behind me. I turned round to see three or four young white men all sporting Front de Gauche stickers trying to break up the African group. The African stewards were brilliant. They responded swiftly by shepherding the African group away from the trouble and calm ensued. What happened next I simply found beyond belief.
When I turned round to look towards the larger demonstration about twenty or thirty Front de Gauche people, men and women, all white, had linked arms and facing the African group had formed a double cordon to prevent the Africans getting close to the main demonstration. Not only that, but when the Africans remonstrated, the language from the all white cordon was, how shall I say … provocative.
Here’s how events unfolded:
What seemed to have escaped the attention of the all French, all white, cordon was, as one of the Africans told me with passion in her voice, “We are all French citizens!”
I must say that for me, the man in charge of the African group – the man in the orange cap, white trousers and holding the microphone in the picture above, was the hero of the hour. He showed real leadership, not by responding as vocally as some of his group but by exerting the sheer force of his personality, calmly talking to people and getting the music and the chanting going again.
I must also say, that having seen what I did, any sympathy I may have had for Le Front de Gauche, and I did have some, melted away in an instant as their darker side revealed itself.
The all white, all French, cordon clearly believed that Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is a wonderful thing … so long as you’re white and French. If you’re black and African then it seems to be quite a different story.
TUESDAY, 1st MAY WAS a public holiday in France – La Fête du Travail. In Paris, it was an opportunity for the whole spectrum of political opinion to take to the streets. The Left marched from Denfert-Rechereau to Bastille, Nicolas Sarkozy held a UMP rally at Trocadéro and the far-right Front National used the occasion to mark the 600th anniversary of the birth of Jeanne d’Arc, Maid of Orléans and national heroine of France.
Such a wide political spectrum on display and the prospect of interesting sounds to collect gave me quite a problem in deciding whom to follow.
In the end, I decided to follow the Front National, the smallest of the events but perhaps, I thought, the most interesting. Since I’ve lived in Paris I’ve seen, followed and recorded endless marches and demonstrations by the Left in various guises but never anything by the far Right. This seemed like an opportunity to redress that balance. I joined their march at the statue of Jeanne d’Arc in the rue Rivoli and followed it to the Place de l’Opéra.
Sounds of the march:
More sounds of the march:
At the Place de l’Opéra the procession congregated in front of and around the Opéra Garnier. A stage had been erected on the steps of the Opéra with a large backdrop featuring Jeanne d’Arc.
I arrived at l’Opéra about forty-five minutes before the speeches began so I had time to look around. I found this delightful lady whose politics I couldn’t share but whose personality was absolutely infectious.
I was also reminded that although this was a public holiday, for at least one radio reporter this was a working day. She had recorded some vox pops and was editing them on her Nagra ARES before sending them by satellite link to her radio station.
For the Front National faithful the centrepiece of the day came at midday with the speeches. Given the Front National’s remarkable result in the first round of La Presidentielle where they achieved almost 20% of the vote the speeches were eagerly anticipated.
Jean-Marie Le Penn spoke first. He is the former leader of the Front National and now the Président d’Honneur. At the end of his speech he introduced his daughter, Marine Le Penn, the current Président of La Front National.
Jean-Marie Le Penn:
Marine Le Penn:
After following the march and listening to the speeches (Marine Le Penn spoke for about an hour) I was exhausted. I did though find the energy to go to Trocadéro where I emerged from the Métro station into a crowd of 200,000 Sarkozy supporters … but that is another story.