National Front in patriotic fervour
- 1 May 2014
Every year on May Day the far right in France marches to the statue of Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) on the right bank in Paris, to lay a wreath.
The Maid of Orleans is the adopted symbol of French nationalism - though right now there's another they have taken to their hearts. She's the National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen.
"Marine Le President!" they shouted today as she joined them on their parade.
The banners and flags of the regions were waved in approval, as the Marseillaise rang out across the Rue de Rivoli.
Marine is in buoyant mood at the moment.
Last month her party enjoyed unprecedented success in the local elections, taking control of 11 key constituencies, and up to 1,200 municipal seats. Most of the new FN mayors were on the front row of the parade this morning, wearing a sash in the colours of the French flag.
The party hopes to replicate that performance in the upcoming European elections. And polls suggest that amid the widespread apathy the FN could finish as the top party in France.
In the spirit of Jeanne d'Arc the backdrop for the traditional May Day speech was a picture of a woman dressed in a suit of armour. "No to Brussels, Yes to France" read the slogan.
The music that marked Marine's entrance was rousing and once at the podium the real jousting began.
"Francois Hollande has taken on the suit of a small provincial governor that Merkel has asked him to wear," said Ms Le Pen. "His Prime Minister Manuel Valls has no idea how to govern France. The destiny of this country is being decided in Brussels."
"As for the UMP," she mocked (the conservative party of former leader Nicolas Sarkozy), "the UMP has left France on its knees.
"The French are lions - when they are not governed by donkeys."
Thierry, a 54-year-old rail worker, has been voting FN since 1982. "Europe is broken," he said. "The politicians have imposed the EU on us for over twenty years - and they were wrong. It's a political disaster, nobody wants to admit it."
On the march Sophie Montel, an FN candidate in this month's European elections, told the BBC: "I'm optimistic, there's real enthusiasm ahead of the elections where I come from, in the Franche-Comte (east). I think we'll obtain some great results and take around 20 seats in the new European Parliament".
Successive polls suggest she is right - the FN are ahead of the two mainstream parties. And 20 seats would amount to a third of the total available.
No doubt the FN has benefited from the rise in French Euroscepticism. One poll out this week suggested only 44% of the French now have a positive view of the EU, even though a majority would like to stay within the single currency.
Anger on left too
The frustration with Europe - and with the Socialist government in particular - was reflected in other parts of the city today, in the union demonstrations to mark International Workers Day.
This week the Socialist government pushed through 50bn euros (£41bn) in cuts. Pension and welfare benefits will be frozen for a year, most civil service pay frozen until 2017. The split it has created on the left can no longer be disguised.
"It's pathetic," said Christel Poher , 44, marching with the CGT union. "People are becoming poorer and poorer and it's always the same people who pick up the tab."
"This is not a left-wing government, they are hardline, liberals. We are heading towards a Europe that pushes people towards nationalism."
In fact the FN has been the number one party among working class voters for more than a decade now. And last month Hayanges, in northeastern France, elected a former CGT union organiser as its far right FN mayor.
The Socialist senator Helene Conway-Mouret recognises the anger on the left - and certainly some disillusioned voters have strayed to the FN. "A government is never popular when it is looking for savings," she said. "Maybe Marine Le Pen is a softer brand; she speaks differently to her father, but look who she is talking to across Europe. They're not soft at all."
The FN is hoping to build an alliance in the new European Parliament. The nationalists would need 25 seats from at least seven countries to form a block in the next parliament. If the FN does take 20 seats then it is well within their grasp.