April 26, 2012 / 11:08 AM / in 5 years

French May Day labor fest sparks election battle

Official campaign posters for French President and UMP political party candidate Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande are displayed on electoral panels, days before the second round vote of the 2012 French presidential election in Saint-Maixent-L'Ecole April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

PARIS (Reuters) - Left-winger Francois Hollande accused President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday of trying to hijack a centuries-old May Day celebration of labor rights for political ends days before France’s presidential election runoff.

Hollande, tipped to beat the conservative Sarkozy in the May 6 ballot, faulted his adversary for calling a rival rally near the Eiffel Tower on May 1 in a challenge to the annual trade union event.

“I regret that Nicolas Sarkozy has exploited this (event) to go in search of conflict,” the Socialist candidate told France Info radio, saying he would leave May Day to organized labor.

“May 1 is a worker celebration that trade unions across the world decide upon, and I consider it is not for politicians to interfere, even during an election campaign,” Hollande said.

Sarkozy’s plans for a parallel rally sets the stage for a three-way contest in the streets of Paris.

Alongside union-led marches, the far right National Front will be holding its annual “Joan of Arc Day” rally in the capital, at which anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen has said she will spell out her position on the presidential race.

Sarkozy, who is seeking to woo far-right voters ahead of the showdown vote, accused unions and the Socialist party of “privatizing May Day” and called the world of “true work” to join his rally at the Place du Trocadero.

He angered unions and the left by suggesting the traditional sponsors of May Day celebrations have protected public employees better than private sector workers exposed to the full brunt of international competition.

The president backtracked slightly on Thursday, saying he had not used the words “true work” to differentiate his rally from the mainstream event, which involves marches in the capital and cities throughout the country.

But he said the left had no right to monopolies May 1.

An Ifop survey found that Le Pen scored as highly as Hollande among blue-collar employees in the first round and outpolled the Socialist among manual workers. Both drew more working-class votes than Sarkozy.

After the president’s campaign attacks on organized labor, France’s largest union, the Communist-led CGT, called on members this week to vote Sarkozy out of office, breaking with a tradition of staying aloof from outright political positioning.

The frustration on the left runs so deep that the Communist daily l‘Humanite newspaper accused Sarkozy of launching a hostile “takeover bid” for labor day, comparing the president on its front page with Marshall Philippe Petain, the wartime leader who collaborated with Nazi Germany.

France’s celebration of the labor movement is part of a far broader international celebration that marks such developments as the introduction of the 8-hour working day in the early 20th century.

While its origins date back to the years after the French Revolution of 1789, the event was turned into a paid public holiday by Petain in 1941 and the date fixed on May 1. L‘Humanite said that Petain, like Sarkozy, had accused the labor unions in his time of pursuing economic or political goals.

Hollande said he would attend a memorial ceremony on May Day for former Socialist Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy, who took his life on May 1, 1993.

Reporting By Brian Love; Editing by Paul Taylor/Janet McBride

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