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France

‘Not the day of hooligans’: French government under fire following chaotic May Day protests

Youths ransacked and then set fire to a McDonald’s restaurant near the Austerlitz railway station, east of the city centre, and torched vehicles at a car showroom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 8:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 8:05pm

France’s interior minister promised on Wednesday to boost security at protests after hooded youths ran amok at a May Day rally in Paris, torching cars and a McDonald’s restaurant.

Police said 109 people were in custody after the violence, which has sparked criticism that the government was unprepared for the 1,200 black-clad troublemakers who joined the traditional May 1 march for workers’ rights.

“The authority of the state, reduced to statements of ‘strong condemnation’, has been tarnished once again,” read a column in the right-leaning Figaro newspaper.

May 1 is Workers’ Day, not the day of the hooligans
President Emmanuel Macron

Regional daily L’Est Republicain deplored “the sight of these 1,200 thugs dressed in black on the Austerlitz bridge”, while the L’Alsace newspaper declared: “Governing means planning ahead.”

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb pledged to look again at how to police protests given the rise of far-left “black bloc” protesters who turn up with the intention of attacking police or property.

“For the next demonstrations there will be even more security forces, this time with the intention of totally separating protesters from those who have come to smash things up,” Collomb told France 2 television.

But he defended the way police had handled the violence, saying little could be done to stop troublemakers from infiltrating the crowds.

“We can only detain a certain number of people who turn up like you or I in civilian clothing and then suddenly are dressed in black bloc outfits in the middle of the crowd,” he said. “We cannot keep up, even with 21 police units mobilised against movements which all of a sudden appear on a scale we’ve never seen before.”

Radical leftist groups had issued a call on social media – both in French and English – for people to take part in a “revolutionary May 1” on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student and worker protests which nearly brought down the government of the day.

President Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to Sydney, deplored the clashes in the French capital, one of several cities around the world where May Day protests turned violent.

“May 1 is Workers’ Day, not the day of the hooligans,” he told a press conference.

Shouting “Rise up, Paris” and “Everyone hates the police”, anti-capitalist protesters in black jackets and face masks had tried to hold up the Paris march. They lobbed projectiles at security forces along the route, who responded with volleys of tear gas and water cannon.

Youths ransacked and then set fire to a McDonald’s restaurant near the Austerlitz railway station, east of the city centre, and torched vehicles at a car showroom, leaving smoke billowing into the air.

Leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the France Unbowed party, was heavily critical of their methods.

“Smashing the window of a McDonald’s is not a revolutionary act,” he said, accusing them of hijacking May Day and “playing into the hands of our adversaries”.

We are sick of this capitalist system that destroys everything, of brutal police repression of those who oppose them
Protester

The leader of the Socialist Party, Olivier Faure, pointed a finger of blame at Macron’s government.

By pursuing “all-out victory” over trade unions in negotiations on public-sector reforms it was “feeding radical behaviour”, he said.

Police said 31 shops and businesses had been damaged, while six cars were burned and another 10 smashed up. On Tuesday, nearly 300 people had been detained.

Four people were injured, including a riot police officer hurt when a stone was thrown at his back.

“We are sick of this capitalist system that destroys everything, of brutal police repression of those who oppose them,” said one masked protester, identifying himself as a 19-year-old student.

The violence marred the larger peaceful demonstration by union activists and others – 20,000 according to the police, 55,000 according to the CGT union – demonstrating against Macron’s public-sector reforms.

The business-friendly centrist has implemented controversial labour reforms designed to make it easier to hire and fire in France, and pledged to cut 120,000 public-sector jobs.

Some students object to his bid to make university access more competitive, while rail workers have unleashed three months of rolling strikes over his planned shake-up of state operator SNCF.

While the French support those reforms, a new Ipsos/Sopra Steria survey published on Wednesday showed that nearly two-thirds of voters – 64 per cent – were disappointed with Macron’s overall performance a year after his election.

His fiscal policies, seen as weighted in favour of business and the rich, were the greatest source of dissatisfaction, the poll showed.