There were cop vans and ambulances running up the Boulevard Beaumarchais as I came out of the Metro. Nothing unusual about the blue lights and sirens — there are times when it seems as if the streets are just a conduit for emergency vehicles, which others use from time to time — but there were a lot of them. It was that universal sign: you’ve missed the action, something going on somewhere else. By the time I got down there, to the May Day march I’d be hoping to meet at the head of, the thing was playing out as scripted. The “black bloc” of anarchists, street fighters and sundries was gradually being beaten back and corralled by the cops — and by a few of the workers in the main body of the CGT union rally, pissed off their show of strength had been turned into a street fight. Later, the news would backfill it: the black bloc had surged to the head of the rally soon after it left the Place de la Republique, early-mid afternoon, and launched an attack on the cops. They’d hauled plaster and stone tiles off shops — no paving stones, anymore — and set up a barrage. Then it got serious with Molotov cocktails, and two cops were put in hospital, one with third degree burns.
That fairly squalid and pointless manifestation has been another capper on a bad “second round” campaign for the left — symbolised by the fact that on May Day, celebrating the strength there is to be had in solidarity and unity, there were not one but two major marches, the CGT-led one from Republique, and the CFDT-led one happening further to the north. The latter is a more centre-left union peak body, which has urged a vote for Macron, while the CGT have refused to do so — as has Jean-Luc Melenchon, to the growing fury of the centre left. Given that this is the Front National, which still lurches into outright near-fascism from time to time, the choice should be straightforward. Macron has tried to deal with the lack of trust in he and his program by saying nothing much of any content. That has only served to unsettle people all the more and give Macron an air of mystery that he doesn’t want. There’s no easy Australian analogy for the contest the French left faces, but I reckon the closest is probably having to choose between Pauline Hanson and Peter Costello, or not voting at all. Yeah, not so easy now is it, not so bewildered about why anyone would hesitate on Macron? Because it’s not just what you’re being asked to oppose. It’s what you’re being asked to consent to that really sticks.
Melancholy May Day then, a reminder of what an enormous impasse the left is in. With Melenchon getting 19% of the vote, it had almost come together, and had the PS removed itself from the running, the 6% vote that remained with its left candidate Benoit Hamon might have been enough. But had Melenchon had a campaign that was less complacent about the problems of French statism, he might have got through with a slice of Macron’s vote as well.
“I voted for Macron,” a friend told me a few days earlier, on the terrace of a cafe on the Grands Boulevards, where all the bright young things from advertising and media gather. Her eyes dipped when she said it, a gauchiste of 20-plus years, but feeling herself unable to vote Melenchon, precisely because his entry to the second round had suddenly become possible. She, like many others, had had enough of a certain mix of policies within the left: a complacency about statism, its gradual grinding of the gears in France, and its exclusive focus on racism, in the issue of terror, immigration and security. “I knew people who died at the Bataclan,” she said. “Everyone from round here does.” She waved her arm round the area, the 10th, gentrifying boho Paris, with a black community for decades, getting less so. The sour irony is that only one party could have produced a candidate to renounce many of Hollande’s — and now Macron’s — proposal for labour law reforms, public service restructuring, the byzantine process of “licensing”, for quite straightforward jobs, but to still insist on the need for reform, and propose a New Deal. That party is the Socialistes, and the very fact of them doing it would have discredited the person and program utterly.
You’d have to be a fool not to see something tragic and portentous in two solidarity allies wandering through north-central Paris, in the shadow of Sacre-Coeur, the bourbon-white cathedral built on the site of the bloody defeat of the Paris Commune. North of there, Marine Le Pen was holding a rally in the sort of Paris ‘burb that simply reminds its residents that Paris doesn’t want them, and she was killing it, with a mixed and various crowd, young and old, and all social classes. Trump had a largely ad hoc, possibly sham pump-priming economic politics. Le Pen has an unquestionably left statist one, consistent and connected to existing conditions, and matched by a communalist focus on notions of defence from imminent, annihilating threat, with “mondialisme” and radical Islam seen as two sides of the one coin.
“This is exactly what has to be got off the streets of France,” Le Pen said of the black bloc biffo. But she steered away from it quickly as well and spent the rest of the day raining down blows on Macron, a man she said didn’t really love France, and was a servant of international banking. She doesn’t care what the left calls her, as long as they march in a direction away from the polling booth. She’s hoping abstention will catch on, that Macron will drive it further, and that her 30% or so of the population will be 50+1% of those who vote. There is a mild but growing panic here that this is happening — and also that even if she doesn’t, Macron will fail in government and in 2022 the FN will sweep to power.
Sirens in the distance, tear gas smell, and burning, vive la France, vive l’Europe!