French far-right holds ‘skinhead-free’ May Day march

France’s far-right National Front made its traditional “Joan of Arc” May Day march Sunday with a new leader at the head and under orders banning skinhead haircuts and jackboots.

The annual march was timed as a Labour Day tribute to workers by the Front (FN), which polls particularly well in depressed post-industrial regions, and appeared to be bigger than last year’s while other labour marches dwindled.

Separately, five major labour unions called 200 marches across France for Labour Day, including one in eastern Paris, to call for pay rises given the rising cost of living, while also condemning racism.

The five said in a statement their marches, which began in the afternoon, were a gesture “in international solidarity” with protest movements in several Arab countries and opposed “exclusion and racism” against immigrants in France.

Meanwhile Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the FN’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen who succeeded him as its leader in January, drew applause as she took her place at the head of her march in front of ParisÕs grand old Opera.

“Marine for president,” cried the crowd of several thousand. “Red, white, blue, France for the French!”

Recent polls showed Marine Le Pen could win the first round of France’s presidential election.

She is seen as a fresh new face for the anti-immigrant party which opponents have branded racist. The party issued instructions to members to exclude “skinheads” and those wearing “combat trousers and boots.”

Le Pen said separately that similar advice was also given under her fatherÕs leadership. A small number of skinheads could be seen taking part in the Paris parade.

The march wound up with a speech by Marine Le Pen beside a gilded statue of Joan of Arc, the 15th-century saint who fought against the English and became a French national heroine.

Le Pen called on the French to seek “freedom” from European integration, reiterating her opposition to the euro, globalisation and immigration.

“In a year’s time… we will be a few days away from the French spring,” she said, referring to the prospect of a National Front victory in the 2012 presidential election.

Several participants in the march cited immigrants as their main concern.

“I expect Marine to clear France of all these parasites,” said one, a 57-year-old Parisian who would only give his first name, Robert.

“We put them up for doing nothing and they want to impose foreign religions and terrorism on us.”

Police estimated the turnout at the FN march at 3,200. The party estimated it at 20,000. Both estimates were higher than last year’s.

By contrast, attendance at the unions’ labour marches appeared lower than recent years. Police estimated turnout in Paris at 12,000, down from 21,000 a year ago.

In 1995 a 29-year-old Moroccan man drowned after being pushed into the Seine on the sidelines of the Front’s May 1 march. Four people who had taken part in the march were later convicted for his death.

Some 250 people held a memorial for the man, Brahim Bouarram, in central Paris on Sunday and laid wreaths near where he drowned, not far from the FN gathering.

“We must block the way of the far right, block the way of the ideas of hate that killed Brahim Bouarram,” said Jean-Pierre Dubois, president of France’s Human Rights League, at that gathering.

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