Protesters take to world’s capitals on May Day

Demonstrations were on Wednesday taking place in capital cities around the world to mark May Day, the traditional day for labour movement celebrations, in recent years also a focus for anti-capitalist protests.

But the protests also took on a local flavour in many cities, with activists in Sydney demonstrating against the way asylum seekers there were being treated, while in Paris more than 400,000 people protested against Jean-Marie Le Pens success in the recent French presidential ballot.

Protests in London began relatively peacefully with the disparate protest groups failing to cause the trouble anticipated by the police.

The first major event of the day took place about 9am with a rally of some 150 demonstrators outside a magistrates court near Victoria, in protest at the trial of a group charged over previous outbreaks of public disorder.

About 600 people of different ages, political affiliations and races gathered in Clerkenwell Green, near the City, to join the march to Trafalgar Square.

Oxford Street, London’s shopping area, came to a standstill as three separate groups of protesters made their way from Bond Street to Hyde Park. Until then shops had been trading normally but some began putting up extra reinforcements as the protesters passed by.

In Mayfair, a group of about 200 demonstrators moved out of Grosvenor Square where they had been demonstrating near the US embassy and began running through the streets chased by police.

In Paris, thousands of police were on duty on Wednesday, as supporters and opponents of far-right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen gathered for May Day demonstrations and rallies.

Some 3,500 security forces were on duty in the capital alone, where thousands of Le Pen supporters congregated near the Paris Opera after a traditional May Day march to honour Joan of Arc, heroine of his National Front party. Carrying French flags and banners with the slogan “Proud to be French”, and chanting “France for the French!”, Mr Le Pen’s supporters heard him condemn immigration, lawlessness and what he sees as the decline of France over the past 20 years.

As Mr Le Pen finished paying the far right’s traditional tribute to the 15th-century heroine, an even larger anti-fascist rally had started marching in the opposite direction, moving from the Place de la Republique to the Bastille.

Across the country, almost one million people marched against the right-wing leader. Chanting “N like Nazi, F like Fascist”, demonstrators took to the streets of over 110 towns and cities as well as many villages in a carnival-like atmosphere four days before a runoff vote between Jacques Chirac and Mr Le Pen.

Riots involving left-wing activists, anarchists and other groups of young people broke out in Berlin and Hamburg on Tuesday night, leading to dozens of arrests and extensive damage. A woman was fighting for her life after being hit with a bottle during the fierce Berlin riot.

Police in the German capital used tear gas and water cannon to break up the rioters, who had earlier looted a supermarket. The police said the riots, which have become a May Day tradition in the capital, were the worst since 1999.

Italy’s main trade unions chose to hold their May Day rally in Bologna to protest against the government’s controversial labour reform proposals. The unions also stressed their stance against terrorism in the city where Marco Biagi, a senior aide who was involved in drafting the proposed laws, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle outside his home. Other rallies are expected in most cities in Italy, with concerts organised in Rome and Palermo.

May Day demonstrations took place around the Spain on Wednesday to protest at government plans to shake up the unemployment benefits system.

The planned reform, also the focus of a threatened general strike on the eve of a June 21-22 EU summit in Seville, has angered some union leaders as it means the jobless would lose benefits if they turned down work officials consider acceptable.

Organisers said around 60,000 people in Madrid had taken part in the protest – much more than in recent years.

In Athens, four separate demonstrations brought traffic to a standstill. About 1,000 police officers were on patrol in the Greek capital and most major roads into the city centre were closed as protesters marched to the US and Israeli embassies to demonstrate against attacks against Palestinians.

In Moscow, pro-Kremlin parties and trade unions staged an estimated 140,000-strong rally on the Red Square. President Vladimir Putin welcomed the demonstrators and hailed the action by the unions.

Turkish security police clashed with some 1,500 protesters and used armoured vehicles to break up a May Day protest in eastern Turkey. In Istambul, around 30,000 trade unionists and leftist groups chanted anti-IMF slogans and called on the government to resign. There were similar scenes in the capital Ankara.

In Australia, demonstrators used the May Day protests to attack the centre-right government’s hard line immigration policies and its controversial detention of asylum seekers at remote outback camps.

“Open the borders, close the camps, free the refugees,” several hundred protesters chanted in Sydney, the scene of the worst clashes.

Earlier the protestors had burnt an effigy of John Howard, the prime minister, outside his local offices and also staged demonstrations at the stock exchange and the Israeli consulate where they called for the freedom of the Palestinian people.

In Melbourne and Brisbane, immigration department offices were also targeted while in Darwin protestors gathered outside a visa processing centre.

More than 500 people joined a march to Hong Kong’s financial district to demonstrate about a lack of jobs and a widening wealth gap.

In Singapore, Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, was arrested for defying the city’s authorities by joining a May Day protest in the grounds of the president’s offices.

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