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May Day in France: origin and traditions

Perhaps you've already heard of April Fools' Day on April 1? Well, the French have a few traditions for May 1st too! If you've ever been to France at this time of year, you'll have noticed that May 1st is a public holiday. All stores are closed, most employees don't work, and you can watch demonstrations in the streets. But do you know why? What do we celebrate on May 1st in France? What are the traditions? I'll answer all your questions in this article!

What do we commemorate on May 1st in France?

May Day is also known as "Fête du Travail" (Labor Day), and has its origins in the United States! Indeed, on May 1 1886, over 400,000 American workers, encouraged by their unions, demonstrated in Chicago to obtain the 8-hour working day.

After 3 days of general strike and protests, they won the case. It was only 4 years later, in 1890, that French socialists decided to adopt May 1st as "International Workers' Day" to pay tribute to the American workers killed during the protests.

Supporters wear a red triangle sewn onto their clothing. This triangle symbolizes the triple demand:

  • 8 hours work

  • 8 hours sleep

  • 8 hours of leisure

The 8-hour day was only adopted in France in 1919.

manif retraites france

Since when is May 1st a public holiday in France?

May Day has been a public holiday in France since 1947. It's a holiday that's even more special than the others, because it's a "compulsory" holiday. Indeed, there's nothing to stop an employer from making an employee work on July 14th, for example, but not on May 1st!

Of course, this doesn't apply to certain essential sectors that don't have weekends or public holidays - like hospitals, fire departments or the police...

What are the other public holidays listed in the Labour Code?

  • January 1st ;

  • Easter Monday ("lundi de Pâques") ;

  • May 8 (World War II armistice) ;

  • Ascension Day ("l'Ascension") ;

  • Whit Monday ("Lundi de Pentecôte") ;

  • Bastille Day ("la Fête Nationale" on July 14) ;

  • Assumption Day (August 15) ;

  • All Saints' Day ("la Toussaint" on November 1) ;

  • November 11 (First World War armistice) ;

  • Christmas Day ("Noël" on December 25).

These days are called "chômés" (=not worked) and are paid.

If these days fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, many workers take Monday or Friday off and do what's known as "le pont". "Faire le pont" means taking a day off between a public holiday and the weekend.

The lily of the valley tradition ("le muguet") 🌿

If you're in France on May 1st, you'll probably see people selling flowers by the roadside or in town centers. But take a closer look - these aren't just any flowers! It's lily of the valley , "le muguet" (pronounced /mugué/).

muguet 1er mai en France

These little white bell-shaped flowers smell wonderful! It's a flower that symbolizes spring and renewal. It grows in woods and can be found all over France, with the exception of the Mediterranean region. Its small white flowers represent the light of May, and therefore joy and liveliness. That's why we offer a sprig of lily of the valley to our nearest and dearest on May 1st: it's said to bring good luck... Tradition even has it that we give 3 sprigs precisely!

But why lily of the valley? The origin has nothing to do with Labour Day! It dates back to the 16th century, when Valentine's Day was celebrated on May 1st rather than February 14th. It was customary for lords and princes to give flowers to their wives and sweethearts. And it was in 1561 that King Charles IX decided to give them lilies of the valley, after having received some himself the previous year! The tradition has continued to this day, even if we no longer celebrate love, but work!

If you'd like to give a gift of lily of the valley to your loved ones on May Day, you'll find it readily available in garden stores ("les jardineries"), markets, supermarkets and even at the roadside! After all, private individuals are also allowed to pick and sell lilies of the valley!

Demonstrations continue to this day

As May 1st is Labour Day, you can also see trade union demonstrations in the streets. They continue to protest today for workers' rights and improved working conditions. In 2023, for example, over 2 million people marched across France against the backdrop of pension reform.

May Day around the world

Today, May 1st is a public holiday in almost all of Europe (with the exception of the Netherlands and Switzerland), but also in many countries around the world, including Japan, Russia and South Africa. Americans, surprisingly, don't celebrate May 1st, but they do have a Labor Day equivalent on the first Monday in September.

A few figures about May 1st

  • On May 1, 2023, 2.3 million people demonstrated across France.

  • 11% of French people are "unionized", which means they belong to a union ("un syndicat" that protects them and defends their interests.

  • In 2023, the French spent 19.6 million euros on lilies of the valley!

  • Lily of the valley has also suffered from inflation: on average, a sprig of lily of the valley costs €3 (compared with €0.75 in 2012!).

  • In 2022, 1.4 million people bought lilies of the valley (over 2 million in 2021).

  • 86% of French people buy lilies of the valley as gifts.


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