'I don't go on protest marches, but I had to come out today'

The Left
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In small groups with stickers identifying them as members of this or that trade union, the Communist Party, or any one of a dozen or more left-of-centre groups, the steady stream of people emerged from the Châtelet Metro station.

They looked around, checked their maps and directed each other, a little hesitantly, down boulevard de Sevastopol.

It was almost an hour after the French capital's traditional May Day march was supposed to have begun, and the boulevard was still a river of people striding purposefully towards the departure point at the Place de la République.

Even two Metro stations away, streets were jammed. The numbers had clearly taken the police by surprise. There were no road blocks, no police of any variety in sight, and none in cars. Emboldened by their numbers, would-be marchers strode into the traffic, ignoring traffic lights, to mix with surprised motorists and irritated taxi-drivers.

One Metro station away from the muster point, and the crush was impenetrable. Home-made posters and banners claimed attention for every conceivable cause, from free trade unions to free Colombia – and all the way back again via free love.

New groups emerged from the Metro all the time and plunged into the press. Small children were passed from hand to hand, over people's heads, just to breathe, their anxious parents still pushing back and forward, intent on remaining, but uncertain where to go.

There was little of the carnival spirit that pervades French political parades. You could instead sense a collective determination to be heard and seen that was grim and inspirational by turns.

Not until an hour later did the first untidy ranks of a demonstration estimated even by the conservative French police as approaching half a million arrive at their destination, Nation. They were met by blasts of horns, chants of "Down with Le Pen" – and the welcome sight and smell of hotdog and drinks stands vying for custom.

Where the right had uniform posters and tricolours, all approved by the leadership, the left had a jumble of colour and home-made ingenuity as they walked past the workshops and small ventures of the capital's more modest districts.

Nor, strictly speaking, was it just the French left and trade union members that marched through eastern Paris yesterday. Many were, indeed, walking under trade-union banners, but far more were not. "I'm just an ordinary Parisian, not even from Paris proper, but from the suburbs, said Pascale, an immaculately dressed woman in her sixties. "I just decided to come. It's important."

Gerard, a semi-retired manager, with a full grey beard, had pinned a poster to his chest reading: "Chirac – you can have my vote, but not my voice" – a reference to the Socialist Party's call on supporters to back Jacques Chirac on Sunday to thwart Mr Le Pen.

"I'm not a union member," he said, "not at all, and I don't go on May Day marches, but I had to come today."