The Front National use May Day to commemorate Joan of Arc, a zealous patriot. In Paris they like to lay a wreath at the foot of a gilt bronze statue of the Maid on horseback in the place des Pyramides. For French politicians it pays to have Joan in your church and the FN were especially touchy this year about Sarkozy’s attempt to drag her away from the Le Pen ‘clan’ in January. I arrived in Paris moments too late for the wreath-laying yesterday. Not that it mattered: anyone who wants to see a far-right politician laying a wreath in honour of Joan can watch propaganda footage of Pétain in the bombed city of Rouen – hit by British and American ‘terrorist raids’ – a few weeks before D-Day.
I wanted to hear at first hand how Marine Le Pen would tell her supporters to vote next Sunday in the run-off between Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) and François Hollande (PS). For herself, she said, she meant to drop a blank paper in the ballot box; they were intelligent people and they must reach their own decision. By then we were at the place de l’Opéra and she had a crowd of 7000-plus in the palm of her hand. Her father had already softened them up with a potted history of Joan of Arc – loud boos at the mention of the English – and Marine had gone on to chastise all the villains in the Front’s rich repertoire: the European Central Bank, the EU, Islam, immigrants, the financial markets, the IMF, the Socialist Party and the media.
She could barely contain her followers when she weighed into Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front candidate whose savage attacks on their leader before round one had only hardened the FN’s resolve. At the mention of his name, the flags waved and the crowd began chanting ‘Communist! Assassin! Communist! Assassin!’ In an ecstasy of agitation a dogged pensioner standing next to me dropped her pack of Winston Lites.
Le Pen’s contempt for Sarkozy runs deeper. Marinistes like the idea that the two-party system is a cynical conspiracy between allies – a ‘UMPS’, as she calls it – and that the FN is cracking it open. The party, she said, is now ‘the centre of gravity of French political life’. The news that they were not obliged to vote for Sarkozy to keep the left from the gates was met with exuberance and genuine relief. Le Pen père led the singing of the ‘Marseillaise’ in his grizzled baritone and the meeting wound up. For hundreds of supporters who travelled long distances to Paris, the road to parliament looks shorter than it did before round one.
The UMP rally was scheduled for 3 p.m. It wasn’t quite 2.30 and the platforms of the Métro at Trocadéro were thick with passengers. To look at the turn-out, you wouldn’t have guessed that Sarkozy was on the ropes and Marine le Pen had just dealt him another stinging blow by telling her followers they needn’t vote UMP.
The faithful here were wealthier and more diverse than the FN contingents, with a wider spread of ages, including plenty of well-heeled youth. The elderly were coming out in force. In the tunnel, a man in his late sixties gripped the coat tail of another man, who appeared to be his father, and the two of them shuffled forward at an impressive rate – it paid to stick behind them – until we came to an ominous halt at the steps of the exit, where it took another ten minutes to percolate up into the dense mass of people in the square.
Sarkozy called this a rally a celebration of ‘real work’: that was interpreted on the left as a crass jibe against workers and jobless French – about 2.8 million – with Pétainist overtones. Hollande retorted that Sarkozy was ‘the president of real unemployment’. The title morphed hastily to a ‘real celebration of work’, but the symbolic tussle, like the Joan of Arc wars, was under way and the issue was the labour movement’s copyright on May Day. By the time I’d burrowed out of the Métro, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, one of Chirac’s prime ministers, was lecturing the faithful about the industriousness of the Brazilians and the thrift of the Chinese.
‘You’re 200,000!’ Sarkozy announced triumphantly, before he laid into the opposition’s preference for the red flag over the tricolore, quoted from Lamartine and promised a new kind of entrepreneurial capitalism to replace ‘finance capitalism’, but he’s been saying that for a while.
A spat erupted just in front of me and a woman fought her way to the edge of the crowd in tears, her hands pressed either side of her hijab. ‘I’m French after all,’ she shouted. Someone in the crowd had thrown a racist insult. ‘This is why France will never lift itself up,’ she said, shaking with rage. Moments later a poor white family – too poor for this rally in a slick part of town – were being questioned by the police.
Early evening at the place de la Bastille: a huge procession organised by the unions, with the left parties in train, was making its way up the boulevard Henri IV. Sarkozy had done a lot to swell the ranks with his provocative counter-festival. The police put the numbers at 310,000, and the CGT at more than half a million.
May Day wasn’t Sarkozy’s last ditch. That comes tonight in a long televised debate with Hollande. Sarkozy’s been eager for this moment and hopes to use his no-holds-barred debating skills to discredit his opponent. But a lot of minds are already made up.