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Europe’s 'May Day' Not All About Barbecues

May Day, Europe’s equivalent to the U.S. Labor Day, is traditionally a protest day, a symbol for workers and trade unions, but upcoming elections in France and Greece are bringing a new level of political importance to the annual holiday.

In France, anarchists, trade unions and the party on France’s extreme right demonstrate every year on May Day. But only five days ahead of the second and final round of presidential electionsthere, both sides are expected to flex its political muscles and bring as many supporters to the street as possible.

Though they are not directly affiliated with the socialist party, the amount of participation among the unions will be a popularity test for the left-wing presidential candidate François Hollande. Five of the biggest unions in France are expected to gather in the south of Paris at around 3 p.m. local time (9 a.m. New York time).

By managing to reach 17.9 percent in the polls on April 22, the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, showed that even though she did not make it to the second round, she is definitely going to be the king-maker for the second round.

During a speech Tuesday, Marine Le Pen said she will personally cast a blank vote on Sunday’s second round of the election, and called for her supporters to decide according to their own conscience.

The move, which was widely expected, is said to be an attempt to thwart President Nicolas Sarkozy. Such a defeat for his moderate right wing party could create a vacuum in the French political spectrum, one that Le Pen’s Front-National could fill in.

On Tuesday it is the conservative Sarkozy rather than the liberal Hollande who will be demonstrating in the street.

In order to close his troop’ ranks, Sarkozyhas organized an event at the Trocadero, right under the Eiffel tower. Sarkozy has declared that he wants to celebrate “real work,” as opposed to social welfare.

Hollande, currently leading national polls with a 54 percent lead, will stay away from big rallies and decided to remain cautious.

Hollande has decided to rather travel to Nevers, and commemorate the 19th anniversary of the suicide of Pierre Bérégovoy—one of former socialist president François Mitterand’s prime ministers in the early 1990’s.

Thousands Protest in Southern Europe

Elsewhere in Europe, thousands of workers will protest against spending cuts as part of May Day rallies on Tuesdays, day before elections in Greece and France where voters are expected to punish leaders for austerity.

Unions in Greece, Spain, Portugal and France will use traditional marches to express their anger over an austerity drive across the euro zone, aimed at shoring up public finances but criticized for forcing countries deeper into recession .

Greece's two major private and public sector unions GSEE and ADEDY marched in the capital Athens to mark the national holiday, while the Communist-affiliated PAME group was also holding a separate demonstration.

Greece will vote on Sunday in a parliamentary election that risks derailing an international bailout keeping the country afloat by punishing the parties that backed austerity.

Demonstrators shout slogans against government's recent austerity economy measures during a protest in Athens.
Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images
Demonstrators shout slogans against government's recent austerity economy measures during a protest in Athens.

"Our message will be stronger on Sunday," said Maria Drakaki, 45, a public sector worked for 22 years whose salary was cut to 780 euros ($1,000) a month. Many public sector wages have been cut by an average of 25 percent. "There's no way I'm voting for one of the two main parties on Sunday."

Police in Greece police prepared for violence that has come to mark many rallies, though Athens has not seen major clashes since an unpopular austerity billwas approved in February.

In the capital Athens, buses and trains came to a standstill as transport workers staged a 24-hour strike, while Greek seamen held a four-hour stoppage.

Policy Change

The rallies and strike come against a backdrop of growing frustration toward austerity that more fiscally conservative northern euro zone memberssay is necessary to bring deficits down to meet EU limits and end the debt crisis.

In Portugal, the country's two main labor unions expect tens of thousands of workers to join rallies in the capital Lisbon and other main cities.

The 700,000-strong CGTP union, which refused to sign a pact on labor market reforms required by a 78-billion euro EU/IMF bailout earlier this year, holds its demonstrations under the slogan "Against exploitation and impoverishment, for a policy change!"

The UGT union, which had signed the reform pact with the government, takes its supporters to the streets to demand "Growth and Jobs, Social Justice".

Portugal is implementing tough austerity measures, which have deepened its recession and pushed unemployment to all-time high levels of around 15 percent.

Spain's unions have also called on their members to rally against labor market reforms.

In Greece, repeated rounds of cuts have slashed wages and pensions and deepened a recession that is now in its fifth year.

Private sector wages shrunk by a quarter last year alone, while unemployment has soared to a record 21 percent. One Greek youth in two is out of work.

"These politicians cannot help us. They have nothing new to tell us. They approved the austerity package and the bailout. We are turning our backs on them," said Dina Bitsi, 58, a pensioner with two unemployed sons.

The country's two biggest parties, the Socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy, are expected to barely eke out enough support to renew their pro-bailout coalition, which analysts see as the only viable option for Greece to carry out reforms needed for continued aid and to stay in the euro zone.

Much of the support that the two parties, who have ruled Greece for decades, once enjoyed has now shifted to an array of smaller anti-bailout parties riding high on voter discontent over the austerity measures.

An inconclusive election result could thwart the austerity and reform policies Athens has agreed in exchange for the 130-billion euro ($172 billion) bailout that saved the country from bankruptcy.

Greece's lenders have said that if the country fails to stick to the reforms pledged in return for aid, the country might be forced to abandon the euro.

Most Greeks want to keep the single currency, despite opposing the austerity measures they have been forced to endure since the country's first EU/IMF bailout in 2010.

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