Millions rally worldwide on May Day

MILLIONS rallied worldwide to mark May Day on Wednesday, while in France the labour holiday turned into a massive but peaceful street protest against the extreme right.

More than one million people demonstrated across France against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, four days before a presidential election run-off that pits Le Pen against incumbent conservative Jacques Chirac.

In a show of unprecedented solidarity, citizens railed against the nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric of Le Pen which has sent shudders through the nation since he unexpectedly defeated Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of the vote and eliminated him from the race.

The massive rallies dwarfed 10 000 to 20 000-strong rallies of far-right supporters who turned out in Paris at an event where Le Pen launched a scathing attack on Chirac.

“Three years ago they said we were dead. But today the earthquake is under the feet of our enemies,” he told the crowd, referring to the European elections.

Police chief Jean-Paul Proust said 30 people, some of them extremists, were detained in Paris, mostly for carrying illegal weapons, assault and other acts of violence and racist attacks.
He did not elaborate.

But there were no reports of serious incidents during the Paris rallies.

A small core of anti-Le Pen demonstrators in the United States and Canada also showed up, although International Labour Day is not celebrated by either nation.

Some 200 to 300 people marched in Montreal late on Wednesday, while 200 others rallied at the French consulate in New York where notably high school-aged protesters gave the message “Go vote! France is in danger,” and “Show the world France is not racist” ahead of Sunday’s runoff election.

Politics took centre stage throughout Europe, Latin America and on other continents.

Two car bombs that police blamed on the Basque separatist movement ETA exploded in Madrid just hours before a major football match. Seventeen people were slightly injured.

Around 75 demonstrations were held across Spain, where the centre-right government has proposed unpopular reforms to unemployment benefits.

Berlin saw its worst violence in three years when May Day protesters hurling bottles and rocks clashed with security forces in the early hours and late on Wednesday.

More than 80 police were injured along with a woman who was left in a life-threatening condition. At least 25 people were arrested.

In Italy, where unions are in a bitter fight with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, half a million people rallied against proposed reforms they say will make it easier to sack workers.

Pope John Paul II, welcoming around 20 000 people at his weekly audience at the Vatican, said: “Mankind becomes more human through work. That is why work is a virtue.”

Police in the Swiss city of Zurich fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters.

But fears of violent clashes in Britain came to little, as about 7 000 anti-globalisation protesters and others staged a noisy but peaceful march through London. Police later said they had arrested 50 May Day protesters, with five police injured.

In Turkey, celebrations in mainly Kurdish provinces resulted in the arrests of at least 30 people and a one-day hunger strike to protest at the detentions.

Russian Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov addressed his first May Day rally since the Communists announced they would no longer cooperate with the Kremlin.

The party claimed a turnout of 100 000 demonstrators but police set the figure at around 20 000.

In a sign of changing priorities, Communist China honoured several capitalists on the day Beijing once dedicated to a show of state solidarity and military might.

Four businessmen joined members of the toiling masses on the list of May 1 Labour Medals awarded by the official trade unions federation, Xinhua news agency said.

A different kind of entrepreneur stole the limelight in Calcutta, where around 2 000 prostitutes held a torchlight march to demand legal status and social benefits.

“Sex workers are a part of society and as such they are exercising their right to join the international working class,” one activist said.

At least 31 people were detained in protests in Australia outside the Sydney headquarters of the security company that runs the country’s controversial immigration detention centres.

Activists rolled marbles onto the streets, sending at least one mounted policewoman and her horse crashing to the ground. All of the detained were later released.

Showing the range of their causes, demonstrators later marched on the offices of the World Bank, the stock exchange, the Israeli consulate and Australian government buildings.

Around 15 000 protesters in the Philippines defied heavy security to rally in support of deposed president Joseph Estrada and against his successor, current President Gloria Arroyo.

In Singapore, opposition leader Chee Soon Juan was arrested after he tried to stage an illegal demonstration outside the presidential complex, police and witnesses said.

Protesters kept closer to the traditional spirit of the day in South Korea, where unionists vowed an “all-out struggle” for the rights of workers.

May Day in Hanoi was again eclipsed by the previous day’s celebrations marking the Communist victory in the Vietnam War.

In Tokyo, where almost record-high unemployment has helped undermine the popularity of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, 35 000 people demonstrated, without reported incidents.

In the Middle East, Jordan’s King Abdullah II paid a tribute to Palestinian workers while thousands in Syria took to the streets to show support for the Palestinian uprising against Israel.

In Tehran, some 5 000 Iranian workers demonstrated against rising inflation and low salaries. Protesters, including about 100 women, chanted “forget Palestine and think about us instead,” demanding more pay and permanent jobs, as textile workers complained they had not been paid in 14 months.

In sanction-burdened Iraq, workers and trade union members gathered in front of the General Union of Workers headquarters in the presence of General Ali Hassan al-Majid, member of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council.

In a country whose people feel increasingly threatened by US rhetoric the union’s president affirmed in a speech that “Iraqi workers are the faithful soldiers ready to defend the country.”

The South African opposition meanwhile used a May Day rally to call on unions to stop the criticism of Israel’s close ally the United States.

“The US designs systems that create employment and opportunity,” opposition leader Tony Leon said.

In Zimbabwe, where land grabs have been the bulwark of President Robert Mugabe’s grip on power, the main labour movement joined the opposition and pro-democracy activists against his presidency.

And Latin American workers paraded in mass marches of their own, including one million people in Cuba and parallel events by rival unions in Venezuela.

Thousands of supporters and opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took to the streets in Caracas, but there were no outbreaks of violence as feared after joint labour-management protests this month led to violence and a death toll of 17 in a coup that briefly toppled Chavez.

In Havana, Cuban President Fidel Castro rallied a massive crowd in an uncharacteristically short speech slamming Latin American nations which recently cast a recent UN human rights vote against Cuba as “boot-lickers” of the United States.

“We will not lower our flags before the hegemonic superpower that today dictates its orders to lackeys and boot-lickers” in Latin America, Castro thundered to a crowd summoned to Havana’s Revolution Square. - Sapa-AFP

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