Clashes erupted between demonstrators and riot police in Paris on Wednesday as May Day marches briefly brought together disparate groups opposing Emmanuel Macron’s government, including gilets jaunes, leftwing trade unionists and “black bloc” revolutionaries.
Police said they had arrested 220 people after black-clad youths hurling bricks and other missiles confronted security forces firing tear gas and stun grenades before the start of a big march across southern Paris.
Most of the tens of thousands of marchers were anti-establishment gilets jaunes or members of the trade unions that traditionally dominate the labour day processions. The main part of the biggest demonstration proceeded peacefully but the marchers were joined by hundreds of “black bloc” radicals who sought to provoke the police.
There were other marches in cities across France, and the end of the demonstration in Toulouse in the south-west of the country was also marked by violent confrontations.
The day was seen as a test for Mr Macron, who has tried to defuse the gilets jaunes protests by offering a total of €17bn in tax cuts, pension increases and other financial inducements since December.
“It’s about the cost of living,” said a 59-year-old gilet jaune who declined to give his name but works for a supermarket chain in the northern region of Picardy. He has been demoasked
nstrating regularly since November 17 last year. “Everyone is fed up. We want the country’s wealth to be shared.”
Asked what he thought about “black bloc” violence, he replied: “We have to be careful about that because it could do a disservice to the movement. But if they weren’t there the media wouldn’t talk about us any more.”
Demonstrators who use so-called “black bloc” tactics are typically anarchist or anti-capitalist revolutionaries, who tend to target symbols, buildings and representatives of the state as well as banks. In Paris, they usually wear or carry scarves or gas masks against tear gas and to hide their identities, and have created makeshift weapons and tools to smash shop windows or break up paving stones to use as missiles.
The May 1 demonstrations were also a trial for Mr Macron’s interior minister Christophe Castaner, who has been accused of being too soft — as well as too hard — on gilets jaunes marchers since they took to the streets last year.
Hundreds of police and demonstrators have been injured in the past five months, while numerous shop windows have been smashed and government buildings damaged in central Paris and other towns. Shopkeepers have complained bitterly about the loss of business on Saturdays as a result of weekly gilets jaunes marches.
In Paris, the authorities have banned demonstrations around the Champs-Elysées, the principal avenue of the capital, and the fire damaged Notre-Dame cathedral.
On Wednesday, Mr Castaner deployed 7,400 police in Paris, and nearly 600 shops, cafés and restaurants were ordered to close and board up their windows on the planned route of the march.
“We are aware that ultra-violent, ultra-leftist but also ‘ultra-yellow’ protesters will come to wreck Paris, and not only Paris,” Mr Castaner said. Recommended Weekend long reads Gauls, gilets jaunes and the fight for French identity
Most marchers in Paris on Wednesday were from the left — one of the banners depicted the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara — but some were supporters of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National who share trade union concerns about wages, unemployment and the cost of living.
One Parisian gilet jaune, who works a carer for the elderly, said she was opposed to sex education in schools, “invasive” immigration and the EU. “Since we’ve had the euro it’s been catastrophic,” she said. “Before we didn’t exactly live in luxury but we had a decent standard of living.”
Mr Macron had demanded “extreme firmness” against those responsible for violence and disorder, especially the “black bloc” marchers, said government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye. Officials had said they suspected 1,000 to 2,000 radicals would seek to infiltrate or accompany the Paris demonstrations.
Three people found with suspicious equipment for arson were stopped and questioned overnight.
Before the marches began, trade union leaders expressed concern that a day supposedly reserved for workers would be hijacked by violent extremists. “I condemn in advance all gratuitous violence committed by the ‘black blocs’ and others. This has nothing to do with international labour day,” Laurent Berger of the CFDT federation told BFMTV.
A joint statement from five leftwing union groups called on Mr Macron’s government and employers to deal with urgent issues such as poverty, unemployment and climate change.
“Today 9m people live on incomes below the poverty line, of whom 6m are deprived of work, and numerous young people are in a precarious situation,” it said.