Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of France in traditional May Day rallies marked by calls for an end to President François Hollande’s austerity policies, which many blamed for record numbers of jobless.
But in contrast to previous years, the main unions are divided over strategy – each organising separate anti-austerity marches in Paris and other cities.
The Communist-led CGT accuses the Socialist-dominated CFDT of selling out to business leaders by backing a reform bill that provides greater flexibility to management.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left politician who broke with the Socialist party and who held a separate rally in the French capital, condemned Mr Hollande for “dividing the unions, and the left. What a success!”.
France’s 12.1 per cent unemployment rate is the highest in the eurozone – a total of 3.2 million French workers without jobs.
Opinion polls show that the extremist National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, addressed supporters in Paris, is benefiting from the disaffection of voters who reject the proposed solutions of the mainstream political parties.
Ms Le Pen attacked the policies of both the Socialist President, and his right-wing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, in an hour-long speech to a few thousand supporters. She pledged to deliver the French from “the shadows of Europe”, accusing the government of kowtowing to Brussels and Berlin. The National Front, she said, represented “a ray of hope”. “We are the centre of gravity of French politics.”
The marches are a foretaste of a month of union-led protests aimed at pressuring Mr Hollande’s unpopular government to change course. The French President, whose approval ratings have slumped to record lows since his election a year ago, is due to discuss economic policy in Brussels on 15 May.
“The government’s policy has a single goal: winning the jobs battle,” the President told a group of 17 workers at the Elysée Palace to whom he awarded Labour Day medals.
Speaking after a meeting with new Italian Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, Mr Hollande promised he would undertake “maximum efforts” to curb unemployment, particularly among the young. But he stressed that for growth to return “we need the whole of Europe.”