It was a beautiful May Day in Paris, and the air was filled with poison.
The Place de la Nation, a large, verdant square that was once home to one of the French Revolution’s most active guillotines, was filled with protesters calling for the head of a man they see as a modern-day tyrant. Madame Guillotine has been long absent from the premises, but the descendants of the men who sharpened her blades still have a bone to pick with the ruling class.
By the time I arrived, grim-faced police in riot gear were already moving to block off the exits, and the sickly sweet aroma of tear gas was blooming all around us, overwhelming the scent of lilies in my hair. It’s a French tradition to carry sprigs of lily of the valley on the first of May, but their delicate perfume was no match for the chemical weapons being volleyed into the crowd. At one point, a canister nearly landed on my foot and a young man in the black bloc darted up to douse it with water, shooting me a wink over his shoulder as he ran back into the chaos. (How’s that for romance?)
This was not how I’d expected the day to go. As a devout union member, I had been thrilled to spend May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, in a city renowned for its militant appetite for strikes and worker action. And as an anarchist and anti-fascist, I was curious to see how my Continental counterparts were planning to celebrate the biggest radical holiday of the year.
I lucked into having the best possible guide to the festivities, too; a dear friend moved to Paris for grad school a few years ago and has since become fluent in French and gained a foothold in the local anarchist scene. He was excited to show me the sights and take me to his neighborhood’s famed “antifa bar,” but first we had to make it through May Day.
We agreed to take it easy—he has a visa to think about, and I had no interest in seeing the inside of a French jail cell—but to keep an eye out for anything spicy. Given Parisians’ reputation for mayhem, I expected some fireworks but wasn’t overly concerned. Anarchist and anti-fascist stickers, graffiti, and street art seemed to be everywhere, so I knew I’d find some fellow travelers.
Parisians usually spend May Day awash in celebration, not tear gas. And there was certainly plenty of fun throughout the day, as we marched up Boulevard Voltaire with 112,000 other people singing, chanting, and waving signs representing their unions and their politics. Everyone had showed up: trade unionists in technicolor vests, street artists bearing puppets, rowdy anti-fascists, and revelers of every description, including elders, children, and babes in arms. Politics can be fun if you know how to have a good time, and these people did, from the wildly energetic agricultural union member dancing to disco atop a float with a huge white cow statue to the militant grandmas gleefully chanting along to the bloodthirsty slogans and the queer Marxist bloc with their hot pink flares. Even a burst of rain couldn’t dampen their spirits (though the resultant mud did smudge more than a few hemlines).
But this May Day had come just after President Emmanuel Macron forced through his extraordinarily unpopular changes to the French pension system, which raised the retirement age from 62 to 64. The joy was thus accompanied by fury. People’s anger was palpable, and they pulled from their own history of rebellion to make their feelings plain. Decapitation was a popular theme for signs and slogans; I heard more than one chant of “Louis XVI, we beheaded him—Macron, we can do it again!” break out along the parade route (trust me, it sounds even better in French). The marchers did their best to ignore the 5,000 cops stationed along the route.
As we neared the Place de la Nation, signs of disorder began to appear, like small piles of trash burning in the street, a few broken shop windows, swaths of graffiti, and smashed-up bus stops. I was honestly surprised that more banks and multinational chains hadn’t been targeted, though, in fairness, many had boarded up their windows in advance. When we arrived in the square, it became apparent that the more rambunctious among us had merely chosen to conserve their energy instead of going too smash-happy—because here, there were cops to fight.
There have been multiple viral photos of French people being blasé in the face of police violence or general chaos—smoking a cigarette, sitting at a bistro, throwing unimpressed side-eye at a cop—and I am pleased to report that this national tendency was on display during even the most intense moments I witnessed on May Day. The police, with their plastic shields and ugly batons, were greeted with disdain or outright hostility, even after they began to discharge their chemical weapons and charge the crowd. When they trained a high-powered water cannon on us and began mowing down protesters with its streams, people scampered out of the way, then walked right back up to the police line to sneer. It would have been funny if I could breathe.
As the cops’ frustration intensified, so did the amount of tear gas they blasted us with. It got pretty bad. Neither I nor my friend were strangers to this type of situation, but being surrounded by hostile, militarized police never really gets less stressful. I eventually had to beat a hasty retreat when my eyes began to burn terribly, but my friend ran back to see what we were missing—and captured video of a gaggle of police accidentally tear-gassing themselves. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
The back-and-forth went on for hours, but we weren’t there to witness all of it; I’d gotten the gist and was happy to leave the locals to their revelry (which I saw later had included setting at least one cop on fire). While the main march had been animated by traditional labor-centric May Day sentiments and hatred of Macron’s pension reforms, the standoff between the cops and the black-clad protesters in the square seemed to have less of a specific purpose outside of pure mutual animosity. The chants of “Aca-beuh!” (ACAB, “all cops are bastards”) provided a clue, but I asked my friend anyway about why the French protesters we’d spent the afternoon alongside had seemed so enthusiastic about the conflict. He thought about it for a minute, then said with a shrug, “They just really hate cops.”
Later that evening, we headed to Le Saint Sauveur, a legendary lefty hangout in Ménilmontant. Its owner, Julien Terzics, is a former Red Warrior—one of Paris’s famed anti-fascist “skinhead hunters” who terrorized the city’s Nazi boneheads in the 1980s. Stocky, scarred, and clean-shaven, Terzics remains physically intimidating, but on the night we showed up, he was more focused on the bar’s clogged toilet than on reliving past glories. His presence and the overall political bent of the bar saturated the establishment, though, from the colorful antifa stickers covering the walls to the political literature laid out by the door to the anti-fascist football ultra scarves and punk posters tacked up everywhere. The bar provides an important social gathering place for the city’s anti-fascist community, but also hosts punk shows and visiting authors; just like in the May Day march, they find time to dance.
The clientele was a motley crew of dissidents, anarchists, SHARPs, intellectuals, and others drawn there by the low prices and convivial atmosphere. A group of youngsters on the concrete outside clutched plastic cups of beer, while a genial skinhead chatted my friend’s ear off about what we should do to the bosses, and a gently swaying older woman talked to me about Sea World. Coming from the US, where anti-fascism is still regarded by the mainstream with clumsy consternation at best and full-blown bad-faith terror at worst, Le Saint Sauveur felt like a magical refuge. It was a place where no one knew my name, but we all definitely felt the same way about punching Nazis.
We spoke different languages and lived different lives, but that night, we were all there for the same reason: to celebrate the workers’ holiday—our holiday—and raise a glass (or two, or three) to our shared vision of a better world. Every May Day brings us a new chance to get a little bit closer, whether we’re celebrating in Paris or Peoria, and it was heartening to find that some things truly are universal (even if one of those things is hating your boss). Later, I went to sleep with the scent of apple blossoms and cigarettes in my hair and cheap wine on my lips and dreamed of anarchy. For a moment at least, everything was beautiful, and anything was possible.