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Demos, strikes and flowers: What to expect in France on May 1st 2023

The Local France
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Demos, strikes and flowers: What to expect in France on May 1st 2023
Protesters march during the annual May Day rally in Paris in 2022. Photo by AFP

May 1st - the international workers' day - is a public holiday in France and traditionally a day of marches and demos. This year, however, unions are calling for a 'tsunami of protest' over pension reform. Here's what is planned.


May 1st is a public holiday around much of Europe, including France, and this year falls on a Monday, creating the first of four long holiday weekends in May.

But while some French people might be taking advantage of the weekend to take a trip - or swapping the lucky May Day flowers with friends and family - others will be taking to the streets.

Unions are hoping for a massive turnout on the streets to show the anger felt in France over the adoption of Emmanuel Macron's controversial pension reform. Although the bill has now been approved by the constitutional council and signed into law, protests are continuing.

May 1st usually sees marches and demos in most French cities, traditional topics include social issues and, increasingly, the climate crisis.

This year, however, marches are expected to be solidly focused on pension reform, and turnout is expected to be much larger. Unions are calling for a "popular tidal wave" on the streets.

They are hoping to equal turnout at the height of the protests, when 1 million people took to the streets in towns and cities around France. 

The CFDT union calls for people to 'put on your trainers to save retirement' on May 1st. Image: CFDT


Air traffic controllers will be striking, and up to 33 percent of flights are cancelled - full details here. The strikes may also affect flights passing over French airspace.

Some rail unions have also called for walkouts on Monday, although it is not clear at present exactly how much disruption this will cause - the most recent rail strike days have seen little effect on timetables.

In recent weeks, days of action have been marked with small, local 'wildcard' actions such as road blockades, blocking airport terminals or walking on the tracks at stations so that trains have to be halted. These disruptions are usually limited in geographical scope and duration.

In big cities, it's likely that some Metro stations will be closed near the protest routes, although services themselves usually continue running.

In the big cities most shops will be open, although offices, banks and public administration offices close for the day. In smaller towns, independent shops are likely to close - although many areas hold special markets on May Day.


Most towns and cities around France are planning demos.

In Paris, the cortège will gather at Place de la Republique at 2pm and head to Nation, arriving at around 5pm, officials expect around 100,000 people to take to the streets in the capital.

In Lyon, the demo will depart at 10am from Place Jean Jaurès, in Nantes it will depart at 10.30am from Nefs, in Strasbourg, protesters will gather at 10am in front of La Poste, Avenue de la Liberté and in Bordeaux, the gathering is 10.30am in Place de la Bourse

In total, there are more than 100 demos planned - find the full list here.


Violence from small groups of anarchists is not unusual on May Day and this has also been a feature of the most recent pension protests in cities including Paris, Marseille, Rennes and Nantes.


The general advice is to look up protest routes in advance and steer clear of the areas the march will be passing through if you want to avoid the possibility of violence, or tear gas from the police.

There will be a heavy police presence in all of the big cities - an extra 12,000 police officers, including 5,000 in Paris, have been put on duty. 


Road traffic is likely to be heavy on Monday evening as French families return from long weekend trips away.


One thing you will certainly notice is stalls selling lily-of-the-valley flowers or muguets - exchanging these flowers is a tradition on May Day that is said to bring luck for the rest of the year. Many trade unions and left-wing organisations set up temporary stalls selling the flowers, in order to raise funds, and you will also find them in supermarkets and florists.



After a rainy weekend, Météo France is predicting fine weather for Monday, with a mixture of sunshine and cloud and temperatures between 9C and 15C. There is the possibility of thundery showers in the south east, along the Italian border. 


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