Rarely have the lyrics of The Internationale seemed at once so apposite and so distant than this May Day, this International Day of the Workers. While in the Middle East and Latin America the lyrics of the socialist anthem reflect a lived reality — "Enslaved masses, stand up, stand up: the world is about to change its foundation. We are nothing, let us be all!" — in Europe, the ideals promoted by the worker’s movement are but a sclerotic shadow.
Indeed, never has the European socialist and social democratic left seemed so weak. It’s no exaggeration to say that the left has been overwhelmed: by the pragmatic reformism of the Greens on the one hand, and the anti-foreigner baiting far-right on the other.
In France, where The Internationale was written in 1871, it’s nationalist anti-immigration leader Marie Le Pen who’s leading the charge. While the official First of May demonstration was almost universally described as "weak" and "small" in the French press with only 77-120,000 demonstrators nationwide, it’s the popular National Front presidential candidate who captured the headlines.
"Marie Le Pen, ‘fighter’ for a ‘free France,’" is how the French paper of record, Le Monde, summarised the far right leader’s First of May speech. The paper notes the contrast between the National Front’s official party address of a year ago, when former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen focused on the "exploitation" of workers and the "need for fraternity" in France — and Marie’s speech yesterday. The Front’s new leader railed against tax and bureaucrats, says the Parisian afternoon paper: but at the centre of her speech were "Euromaniacs" and "the preachers promoting globalisation" who have "crushed the sovereignty" of the republic.
In Germany, May Day has been the property of the country’s anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian subculture since 1987, when the far left succeeded in kicking out the police of the Berlin suburb of Kreuzberg. However this year, clashes with police were largely absent from the 10,000 strong revolutionary demonstration in the German capital, prompting some satisfaction from conservatives. The "ritual" of the First of May is now "history," opines the centre-right Berliner Tagesspiegel. The paper says the revolutionary First of May demonstration had been christened the "Day of Rage" by organisers, but on the day "7000 police made clear that they weren’t going to let anything of the sort flare up".
Yet in Germany it’s not just conservatives who are satisfied by the way May Day played out in the capital. For the green-left Tageszeitung, the demonstration this year indicates that the "concrete politics" of anti-gentrification and protests against rent prices have replaced a "generalised critique of capitalism as such". The paper expresses relief that "major clashes along the demonstration route" replaced "a spectacle of ritualised idiocy" which had discredited the left in recent years.
Although in the larger European countries, 1 May was relatively mild-mannered, elsewhere on the continent demonstrations held in countries where spending cuts and austerity measures have bitten were characterised by tension and clashes. Publico in Portugal reports that the Portuguese police force is defending its decision to open fire with air rifles and pistols on the May Day crowds protesting against EU and IMF driven austerity measures. The paper says demonstrators attacked with poles, lasers, bottles and stones, after the police tried to grab a demonstrator. The police responded with small arms and airguns. Miraculously, only four were injured at the rally, with one man "hospitalised after being hit by rubber bullets in the back".
Meanwhile Greece was characterised by "deserted train stations, shut down trains and deserted ports" according to Euronews’ Italian service. The day was marked by a widespread transport strike that’s likely to be overshadowed by a general strike planned for 12 May in a country that’s been "kneecapped by the crisis and the taxes imposed by the EU and the IMF," says the multilingual European news service.
In one of the last bastions of what was once called "actually existing socialism," Cuba, the state radio service dedicated much of its reporting to rebutting the supposed distortions of those "renegade and misinformed" bloggers who use networks like Facebook and Twitter to "offend the (Cuban) people and their leaders." Radio Cubana’s commentary claims these naysayers were overshadowed by the supporters of the "huge march, which showed that the youth and the generations born after the revolution are ready to defend its ideals".
Since a week ago, Cuban ideals include private property and taxes (which are to be reintroduced) and yes, Cuba’s very own austerity measures. There are also to be cuts to the socialist country’s public services in the coming months, writes Costa Rica’s El País.
Elsewhere in Latin America, leaders tried to show their "engagement with the labour agenda," according to Honduran paper La Tribuna. With much of the continent dominated by centre left and leftist leaders, many messages of solidarity with workers were offered, reports the daily. Paraguyan leader Fernando Lugo’s message to workers offered guarantees that conditions for workers will improve: "it’s not enough for macroeconomic conditions in Paraguay to improve if a job is still something to be attained for many workers."
However, continues the paper, elsewhere in South America there are signs that divisions are emerging between leftist governments and their trade union allies. Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia — elected in 2006 with much hope for economic redistribution — was absent from the union rallies. Having "patently shown his distance (from worker’s demands for) better wages" in April, Morales preferred to celebrate privately with state workers, says La Tribuna.
Meanwhile in Tunisia and Egypt, workers celebrated the first "free" workers’ day since the fall of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, reports Radio France International. "Workers, you prepare the bread, but live amongst the crumbs," shouted hundreds of demonstrators in the main boulevard of Tunis, says the broadcaster — which adds the "mood is hardly calm" in the Tunisian capital, despite the fall of Ben Ali, with demonstrations continuing daily. Social peace and tranquility do not reign in Egypt either, says RFI: around 40 trade unions have been created and "the political mobilisations on Tahir Square have been supplanted by workers’ mobilisations."
Foremost among the demands of Egyptian workers: a call for a minimum wage of around $250, a pittance that brings to mind the first May Day "workers’ holiday", held in 1856 in Australia.
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