France Shows its Anger on May Day Ahead of Paris Olympics

REUTERS/Louisa Gouliamaki
Paris 2024 Olympics – Olympic Flame Handover Ceremony – Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece – April 26, 2024 General view of the olympic flame in the cauldron during the Handover Ceremony

PARIS – Demands for wage hikes, chants for Gaza and a smattering of calls to extinguish the Olympics flame echoed in the streets of Paris on Wednesday, as traditional May Day labor rights marches melded with pro-Palestinian protests and anti-Olympics sentiment.

May 1 is Labor Day for much of the world and an annual display of protest and activism. In France, it can be a good moment to take the temperature of the nation.

The turnout at Wednesday’s protests suggested that French anger has dissipated since spring of last year, when the government forced through a widely unpopular law that raised the retirement age. But workers and students are still angry enough to make officials worried about disruptions to the Paris Olympics this summer.

Isabelle Garivier, 57, who was marching as a member of the main General Confederation of Labor (CGT) union, said people were in the streets this year to protest the “attack from all sides on workers’ rights” as well as “the shameful support for Israel from this government.”

“The anger is still here,” she said. “It’s here every day at work, and they are trying to silence it, but we will not stop.”

Paris Olympics organizers are watching to see if uproar from different groups – garbage collectors, transportation workers, student protesters – could build momentum into July and August and “ruin the party,” as one French official put it.

A small group of protesters in Paris drew attention Wednesday by burning the Olympics rings while standing on a statue of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic.

Lisa, who wouldn’t give her last name out of fear of repercussion from the police, said their anti-Olympics collective believed the Games were putting political and business interests above local ones.

“At no moment were people’s opinions considered, even among residents of neighborhoods that were transformed … spaces that were reclaimed, privatized and concreted over,” she said.

Among the group’s concerns, she said, was that migrants and other people were being evicted from areas of the city as part of Olympics preparations and an effort to speed up “gentrification of the neighborhoods.”

Crowds on Wednesday in Paris and other French cities – including Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux – were much smaller than last year, when outrage over the retirement-age hike united unions and brought 782,000 people to the May Day marches, including 112,000 in the capital, according to official estimates.

This time, the main CGT union reported 200,000 demonstrators across France and 50,000 in the capital, while the Interior Ministry estimated 121,000 total and 18,000 in Paris.

The Paris march was largely calm, but there were some clashes. Police said seven law enforcement members were hospitalized after being hit with a homemade explosive device late in the afternoon, according to French media.

Elsewhere in the city, protesters threw projectiles at police and set fire to some vehicles. Officers dispersed tear gas and detained at least 45 people.

Such scenes are typical of demonstrations in France. But it will be uncomfortable for French officials and Olympics organizers if strikes halt trains or leave garbage mounds in the streets while the world is watching.

To stave off labor actions, French ministers recently promised bonuses and other incentives to eligible government staff working during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The minister for public services, Stanislas Guerini, said during the March announcement that it “must be a moment of success for the nation.”

A range of grievances could converge to upend that success.

A branch of the CGT called on police officers to join the May Day march to demand better pay and working conditions. Another French police union had threatened to disrupt the upcoming Olympics torch relay, saying that promised bonuses were held up, as authorities scrambled to clinch deals with the unions.

A disgruntled police force does not bode well for France’s plan to deploy tens of thousands of officers, soldiers and guards to protect an Olympics that faces a potential shortage of private security agents and unique challenges, including ambitions to hold the July 26 Opening Ceremonies along the Seine River.

French authorities have also negotiated with rail workers and air traffic controllers, hoping to avert walkouts that could disrupt Metro trains or flights as elite athletes, world leaders and millions of tourists flock to Paris. Transportation workers and garbage collectors are among unions that have filed strike notices for the period of the Games – when the city is counting on them to work – although it remains unclear whether they will actually walk off the job.

Even some workers at the French institution making Olympic medals went on strike in recent weeks, demanding better recognition and higher pay.

It’s not just labor strikes. As protests engulf college campuses across the United States, outrage over Israel’s war in Gaza has sparked protests in Paris for days, including at the prestigious Sciences Po and Sorbonne universities.

On Wednesday, demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and raised signs calling for boycotting Israel at the Olympics.

Marie Rieth said she joined the march in Paris because “it’s abominable what’s happened in Gaza for seven months, and we find it disturbing what is happening to silence the voices of support for Palestine.”

“And we personally know Gazans who could have been killed under the bombs. … Those we know have gotten out,” she added. “They lost everything.”

The head of the Paris 2024 organizing committee, Tony Estanguet, has said he hopes sports, not politics, will dominate the Games this summer, even as he acknowledged that “the international context is particularly tense today.”

He has also called for a domestic truce for the Olympics, and said officials were working to address social issues. “I would like for us to welcome the whole world in the best conditions and that we don’t ruin the party,” he said.