May Day Marches Turn Violent As Yellow Vest Protesters Join Demonstrators

May 1, 2019
Originally published on May 1, 2019 4:06 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

May Day is the traditional holiday of workers across much of the world. It's similar to Labor Day in the U.S. In Paris, the usually peaceful labor union marches were upended by violence. According to the interior ministry, more than 250 people were arrested. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Today's May Day union march through Paris began as it usually does with songs about workers triumphing over greedy bosses and cold beers and grilled sausages served up along the parade route. But for the first time, May Day included independent and often unpredictable yellow vest protesters. Twenty-six-year-old Ulysse Tassin says he's neither union nor yellow vest, but he shares the yellow vest's anger over social and financial injustice.

ULYSSE TASSIN: There are people in this country that can't live with their minimum wage. And at the same time, there are people that can give 200 million for Notre Dame like that - just 200 million in one day. It makes no sense.

BEARDSLEY: French authorities had warned of violence, and there were 7,500 police officers on the streets of Paris. In the past, hooligans have tagged onto peaceful demonstrations and fought with police at the very end.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: But this year's march degenerated even before it began. Some protesters threw bottles, and police fired tear gas. Peaceful demonstrators just tried to get out of the way as young men fought running street battles with heavily equipped riot police. Fifty-three-year-old Sylvie Clement and her friends were choking and red-eyed.

SYLVIE CLEMENT: (Through translator) We didn't do anything, but they gassed us. We're just yellow vests, and this is the worker's holiday. Don't we have the right to protest in France anymore? This is just disgusting that we're being attacked like this.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The crowd chanted, "everybody hates the police." It became so chaotic that for the first time, the leader of the main trade union, the CGT, had to cancel his speech and be escorted out of the crowd to safety. The union put out a statement later in the day saying the right to peaceful protest is under threat.

In a cafe not far from the chaos and tear gas, Parisians sipped coffee and beer as if it were a normal day. Retired finance teacher Michel Fleuriet said it felt like the end of an era. He says the power of trade unions in France is declining, and the yellow vests are a new force.

MICHEL FLEURIET: Don't forget that the French invented the revolution. Not like the tea party things. We don't throw tea into the water. We cut heads.

BEARDSLEY: And the yellow vests want the head of French president Emmanuel Macron. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.