Riots in Paris: May Day 2023 France protests explained, what is May Day - why are there Labour Day riots?

Though the vast majority of protests were peaceful, some demonstrations turned violent

In an outpouring of worker unrest not seen since before the global Covid-19 lockdowns, people squeezed by inflation and demanding economic justice took to the streets across Asia and Europe to mark May Day.

In France, as unions pressured the president to drop a higher retirement age, police charged at radical protesters and troublemakers who shattered bank and shop windows and set fires.

The ability to take days off was demanded by Spanish lawyers, higher salaries were asked for by South Koreans, and migrant domestic workers in Lebanon marched in a nation in the midst of an economic crisis.

Although May Day is observed all over the world as a celebration of labour rights, this year’s demonstrations also tapped into deeper resentments. Here is everything you need to know about it.

Why are there protests on 1 May?

The origins of May Day can be traced back to 19th century Australia, when workers were organising to demand better working conditions and wages. On 21 April 1856, workers marched through the streets of Brisbane to demand an eight-hour workday and other labour rights.

That day of action became a significant event in the Australian labour movement, and was commemorated yearly, with workers across the country organising rallies, marches and demonstrations to advocate for workers’ rights.

Demonstrators from the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) hold flares during this year’s May Day protests in Paris, France (Photo: Ameer Alhalbi/Getty Images)Demonstrators from the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) hold flares during this year’s May Day protests in Paris, France (Photo: Ameer Alhalbi/Getty Images)
Demonstrators from the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) hold flares during this year’s May Day protests in Paris, France (Photo: Ameer Alhalbi/Getty Images)

The Australian labour movement inspired similar movements in America, and led to workers across the United States going on general strike on 1 May 1886 to demand an eight-hour workday.

In Chicago, this strike led to a confrontation between the police and the striking workers, which culminated in a riot in Haymarket Square on 4 May 1886. During the riot, a bomb was thrown at the police, killing several officers and leading to the arrest and trial of eight anarchists.

In the aftermath of the Haymarket affair, 1 May was chosen to become International Workers’ Day, a day to commemorate the struggle for workers’ rights and to honour those who died in the struggle. The commemoration spread internationally, with workers around the world organising May Day demonstrations and protests.

Since then, May Day has been associated with labour protests and demonstrations, often with workers using the occasion to demand better working conditions and higher wages. May Day has also been associated with broader political protests and demonstrations, with people using the occasion to call for social justice, political change and other causes.

Though the vast majority of May Day demonstrations and protests are peaceful and nonviolent, in some cases, demonstrations have turned violent, with clashes between protesters and police resulting in property damage, injuries and arrests.

What happened in France?

According to interior minister Gerald Darmanin, 800,000 people participated in marches around France, mobilising mostly to protest the recent decision by President Emmanuel Macron to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

While Macron argues that pension reform is economically necessary as the population ages, advocates for the labour movement see it as a threat to hard-fought workers’ rights. French union members were joined by groups fighting for economic justice, or just expressing anger at what is seen as Macron’s out-of-touch, pro-business leadership.

Labour activists from abroad were present too, among them Hyrwon Chong of the South Korean Metal Workers’ Union. “Today we see rising inequality throughout the world, terrible inflation,” she said, adding that Macron’s government was trying “to tear down a pillar of the social system which is the pension system”.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the UK’s National Education Union, praised French unions as “an inspiration to working people across Europe”. Like them, “you don’t back down,” he said.

But while the marches were largely peaceful, violence by radicals, an ever-present reality at French marches, marred the message, notably in Paris. Tear gas hung over the end point of the march, Place de la Nation, where a huge black cloud rose high above the trees after radicals set two fuel cans alight outside a building renovation site, police said.

French police used drones to film unrest as 108 police officers were injured around France, according to Darmanin. They include one who was seriously injured by a Molotov cocktail, while 19 more were hospitalised. How many demonstrators may have been hurt in the clashes remains unknown.

“Violence is increasingly strong in a society that is radicalising,” the interior minister said on BFM-TV news station, blaming the ultra-left. He said some 2,000 radicals were at the Paris march, where climate protestors also spray-painted a Louis Vuitton museum.