Hundreds take to the streets on May Day against fascism and Le Pen, Susan Ram reports from south-west France.
Auch, an ancient citadel of a town, sits perched upon a rocky outcrop above the river Gers eighty or so kilometres to the west of Toulouse. A departmental capital, it rules in gentle fashion over rolling hills, vineyards and picture-book-pretty rural communities. It offers its 22,000 or so inhabitants two weekly markets, a reasonable range of jobs (primarily in administration and the public sector), a large hospital, educational institutions aplenty, and a restaurant culture steeped in regional tradition.
In pre-Revolution days, Auch presided over a much larger domain: that of Gascony, a province whose disappearance as a physical entity is belied by its persistence in legend, memory and wine labels (as in Côte de Gascogne). This proud heritage is evoked by the town’s prominently positioned statue of d’Artagnan, Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling creation; the writer allegedly modelled him on Charles de Batz, Comte d’Artagnan, whose château lay hard by the Gascon capital.
Neither a large metropolis nor a purely rural community, Auch can be said to be broadly representative of smallish-town France. In the first round of this year’s presidential elections, the largest contingent of voters (in an 80% turnout) opted for Macron (26.7%). Close on his heels came Mélenchon (23.4%); then a large gap before Fillon (16.51%), and only then Le Pen (13.57%). Hamon did comparatively well (11.7%) in this old socialist heartland. Poutou of the NPA picked up 117 votes (1. 1%), while Arthaud (LutteOuvriere) got 46.
Like other small-to-middling towns across France, Auch is proud of its May Day traditions, its particular way of celebrating the annual Fête du Travail (a public holiday in France).The fact that this festival falls between the two rounds of the presidential poll imbues it with added intensity every five years. This year, it seemed likely that Marine Le Pen’s success in (just) making it through to the second round would have a visible impact, both on the framing of May Day in Auch and on the people attending it. Equipped with placard, notebook and supportive partner with Go-Pro camera, I went along to see for myself.
By ten o’clock, the banners were going up in the place de la Libération, just across from the Town Hall. There was a strong PCF (PartiCommunisteFrancais) and CGT (Conféderation Generale du Travail: a confederation of trade unions with close ties to the PCF) presence, with comrades busy raising funds by selling sprigs of lily-of-the-valley (a May Day tradition in France). Music blared from loudspeakers; at one point the Internationale animated the streets, an unusual experience for someone of British origin.
The first person I spoke to was Jean-Charles, a postman aligned with SUD Solidaires, an alliance of trade unions independent of France’s five main union confederations. He confirmed that today’s ‘manif’ (demo) would have a sharp and explicit anti-fascist focus, with the emphasis on bringing people together. “We have to do this,” he said, surveying the range of organisations present.
I moved on to a cluster of workers affiliated to Force Ouvrière, another of France’s big five union confederations. There I spoke to Jacques, a young professor of history at a lycée in the nearby town of Lectoure, who spoke about the challenges he faces in a context where he sees the study of history being downgraded as a priority. Making points he would return to in an excellent fighting speech on behalf of FO, Jacques emphasised the need to carry the fight against le Pen into the streets, and celebrated the combative, creative initiatives being taken by lycée students in Paris, Rennes, Nantes, Lyon and other centres.
By this time Les Insoumis had arrived: a lively contingent of supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This was a noticeably younger crowd, featuring more women (Sophie, a local primary school teacher, was drawn to the anti-Trump badge I was wearing, and I promised to send her one). Arnaud, studying in Toulouse but back home in Auch for the holiday weekend, told me he was going to vote ‘blanc’ (leave his ballot paper blank). When I asked him if he’d been at Mélenchon’s giant riverside rally at Toulouse a few days before the first round vote, his face lit up as he described its atmosphere and impact: it had been “electrifying” he told me, speaking in English.
All the while, speakers from the various participating organisations were addressing the crowd, by this time comprising seven or eight hundred people. The central message, conveyed by every speaker without exception, could not have been clearer: ‘Pas une voix doit aller au Front National!’ (not a single voice should go to the Front National!) Le Pen was characterised as fascist repeatedly and without any hint of qualification. The class character of fascism was invoked to debunk Le Pen’s claims of ‘worker-friendly’ policies, and those attending were left in no doubt as to what would follow an FN triumph: ‘la guerre’, war and bloodshed, the crushing of the left.
The crowd continued to build steadily, reaching easily over a thousand by the start of another longstanding feature of May Day in Auch: the march down the hill through the old town to the riverside, then back up again. It was here, in the front ranks of the marchers, that I encountered Lola, a young woman with mermaid-blue hair and the brightest of eyes. Throughout the morning I had made an effort to zero in on younger participants, and it was while I was chatting to a pair of bemused sixth formers that Lola was pointed out to me. “She’s the one who knows everything,” the girls told me. And so she did.
Lola, a student at one of Auch’slycées, told me how, last week, she had helped organise an anti-fascist protest at her school. “You know, we only managed to get 45 students involved,” she told me in excellent English. “But we have to start somewhere. And some of our teachers, they’re here today, on this manif– because of the unions they belong to, and so on. And they’re really helping us; they’ve got experience we can learn from.” Thomas, a fellow sixth former, added “You know, we can’t actually vote – we’re too young. But it’s our future that’s at stake, and with this wretched choice (between Macron and Le Pen), we feel we have to speak up.”
This coming Friday, May 5th, I’ll be back in Auch again. The reason? Lola and her comrades have called for a protest outside their lycée, beginning at 8.30, and I want to be there to see how it goes. In Auch, as in towns and cities across France, the unpalatable, impossible second round choice between Macron and Le Pen is already triggering imaginative responses. Today’s message of anti-fascist unity, so powerfully articulated in this small corner of south-west France, provides an excellent foundation for future action.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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