But by the way, does demonstrating for Labor Day still have a real interest?

Every May 1st in France, it’s the same refrain. Whether it’s raining, whether it’s windy, whether the government is planning a totally unpopular measure or has nothing planned to arouse discontent, we beat the pavement and demonstrate everywhere in France, under the banners of the various unions. A reflex that has become almost Pavlovian.

But precisely, by dint of having made this date a habit – independently of the actions of the executive and the social situation -, does Labor Day keep any meaning? And above all, does it have an impact?

The origins of May Day

Here we are directly taken over the pass by Mathilde Larrère, a historian specializing in revolutionary movements. Now say International-Workers-Day instead of Labor Day, thank you. Because we do not joke with this day, even less in France. “The 1st of May has long kept a very demanding aspect in the country, more than festive, because of its beginnings”, notes the historian (see box).

This is the main role of this day: to celebrate the workers of all countries, confirms Céline Verzeletti, CGT confederal secretary. “Whatever the situation in France, it is important to show our international solidarity by mobilizing. May Day is also a demonstration for peace, which takes on particular meaning this year. As Mathilde Larrère points out, it extends more and more to other struggles: students, feminists, LGBT+. So many more reasons and causes in the name of which to gather on this day of lily of the valley.

In May, do what you want

Like any anniversary, what matters most is to be present, says Emmanuelle Reungoat, lecturer in political science at the University of Montpellier: “On May 1, the social movement is on display, shows, made a member. A way to remember the good memories of the government and to warn it that protest in the street is always possible. A deployment of strength… or weakness, as Mathilde Larrère notes: “Sometimes May Day illustrates the poverty of mobilization or union divisions, when different marches are organized”.

Be that as it may, the day makes it possible to identify the major current causes: “It is an important step up in the field. We listen to people’s concerns, everyone learns about the concerns of others, we take the pulse of the social situation, ”says Jérôme Vérité, secretary general at CGT Transports. But beware, the May harvest does not indicate anything about the social vintage of the year. “This does not illustrate the balance of power to come. A very well-attended May 1st does not put the unions in a position of strength against the government for the social struggles to come, continues Mathilde Larrère. It’s a thermometer, not a forecast. »

The social, the other side of politics

Beyond displaying its muscles, the 1st of May also serves to revive smiles. “It’s a moment of conviviality and reunion between workers, retired and active alike,” enthuses Jérôme Vérité. “It creates social, exchanges. Politicization is also that: beyond protest, forging links and meeting people, ”welcomes Emmanuelle Reungoat, citing among other examples the cafes on the roundabouts of the time of the “yellow vests” or the post-meeting dance floors.

A good-natured atmosphere which can also help to take the step of activism for some, according to the lecturer: “People fearful of the police, violence, tear gas, can participate in a 1st of May, where confrontations are generally less. An observation shared by Céline Verzeletti, who evokes “stands, music, convivial meals”. But she adds a nuance: “In the big cities, the situation can quickly become tense with the police, people are afraid, even on May 1st. Same analysis with Mathilde Larrere, who says she no longer takes her child there because of the danger. Remember in particular that the Benalla affair took place on May 1, proof of the violence that can emanate there.

Big city or not, “this is an important moment of political socialization, with young people arriving, a date known to all, a holiday therefore without economic cost for the participants”, continues Emmanuelle Reungoat. From there to finding the troops of tomorrow, there is a step that Mathilde Larrère refuses to take: “The work of raising awareness is done over the long term, not over a day. May Day may be the only event of the year for some people. An open door that does not ensure the continuation of events, but all the same an invitation, concludes Céline Verzeletti: “This can be the starting point of a mobilization process that can go crescendo. In this year of elections, it is important to remember that democracy does not come only at the ballot box, but in different ways. Especially on the street. »

The origins of May Day

May Day was institutionalized in France in 1889 by the Second International, during its founding congress. The date is chosen in tribute to American workers, wrongly accused of having planted a bomb in Chicago after a social movement initiated on May 1, 1894, and having finally been executed.

“The goal of the first May Days is to obtain a reduction in working time to achieve the rule of three eights: 8 hours of work, 8 of sleep, 8 of leisure during the day, informs historian Mathilde Larrère. The days could go up to 10, 11, 12 hours of work. At the time, not necessarily demonstrations: “the workers stop working after eight hours of work, to show their claim”. Two years later, in 1891, a procession of workers was fired upon by the army, causing nine deaths, including two children, during the shooting of Fourmies (North). The government concedes the rule of three eights on April 23, 1919, a few days before a particularly dreaded post-World War I May Day.

The mobilizations become less massive during the crisis of the 1930s, until 1936 and the big strikes in between the two legislative rounds, leading to the victory of the Popular Front. And during the Second World War, Marshal Pétain tried to recover the movement by making it “Labour Day”, a Vichy name that disappeared at the Liberation to finally become the official name of this day in 1948. A year earlier, May 1 became a public holiday and a day off.

Then, disappearance of the radars in the years 1950 and 1960, with the state of emergency related to the wars of decolonization, before a return with fanfare a certain month of May 1968. Since? Highs and lows. “The 1st of May are more or less important depending on the social context and the years”, notes the expert.

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