May 1st – la Fête du Travail in France

 

Orchid time

Orchids are abundant in May

May 1st has a special significance in the French calendar, since it’s la Fête du Travail (labour day), when everyone downs tools. Even our local newsagent closes on May 1st, although it is open every other day of the year, Christmas Day included. Since 1947, this day has been a paid public holiday in France.

In France public holidays are celebrated on the day they fall. This year May 1st happens to be a Thursday, which means that a lot of people will take Friday off as well and will enjoy a long weekend. This is known as faire le pont (making the bridge). Since May 8th (celebrating VE Day in 1945) and May 29th (Ascension) also fall on a Thursday, there will be a lot of ponts this month.

It’s also the start of the vide-greniers (jumble sale) season. Almost every village in the area has one today.

Spring is sprung

May 1st has long been associated with the beginning of spring. The Romans celebrated Flore, goddess of flowers gardens. It’s also Beltane, when the Celts passed from the season of darkness into the season of light. Victor Hugo wrote a poem entitled ‘Premier Mai’:

Premier mai ! l’amour gai, triste, brûlant, jaloux,
Fait soupirer les bois, les nids, les fleurs, les loups

[The first of May! Joyful, wistful, burning, jealous love
Makes the woods, the nests, the flowers and the wolves sigh.]

The month of May is an important one in the agricultural calendar, since the weather determines what happens to the crops. Hence the saying ‘Mai fait ou défait’ (May makes or breaks).

Symbol of work

Wild rose, former labour day symbol

Wild rose, former labour day symbol

It all started in the States in 1886, when many (but not all) workers won the right to an eight-hour day. In 1889, the 2nd International Socialist Congress took place in Paris and chose 1st May as ‘International Workers’ Day’. They also began a campaign for an eight-hour working day.

Two years later, the police fired on a workers’ parade in Fourmies in northern France. After that, workers wore a wild rose (églantine) as a symbol of the bloodshed and in honour of earlier revolutionary Fabre d’Eglantine. In 1919, the French senate agreed to the eight-hour day. They also made May 1st a public holiday.

Under the Vichy regime, Maréchal Pétain instituted la Fête du Travail et de la Concorde sociale (work and social harmony day) in 1941. Vichy abandoned the wild rose, too closely associated with the Left. May 1st also happened to coincide with Pétain’s patron saint’s day – Saint Philippe. The fête was swept away at the Liberation but reinstated in 1947, when it became a paid public holiday.

Fête du muguet

Muguet

Muguet

Throughout France today, you’ll see muguet (Lily-of-the-Valley) being sold and presented for luck. The flower appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages and was purportedly presented by Charles IX to all the ladies of the French court from 1561. However, it wasn’t associated with la Fête du Travail until the 20th century.

On May 1st sellers of muguet are traditionally allowed to trade without paying tax.

You might also like:

La Marseillaise – or should that be la Strasbourgeoise?
Bastille Day
International Women’s Day: a French feminist pioneer

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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4 Responses to May 1st – la Fête du Travail in France

  1. Thanks for the history, Vanessa. Always mean to look things up like that and then forget or don’t have time. We were both working yesterday, unfortunately, and to make matters worse the hubby couldn’t find anywhere open selling muguets, and as he traditionally has given me one every year for the last 10 years he was nearly crying :-)

    • nessafrance says:

      What a pity your husband couldn’t find any muguet. Perhaps you should grow some? A friend grows it quite successfully around here and I think it does okay in the right conditions.

  2. Yes, lots of history attached to today. However, the secretary at our mairie was working this morning! She covers seven tiny communes and is an terrific help to everyone as well as being really friendly. We know we’re very lucky; the secretaries in the other two mairies I’ve had to deal with were pretty horrendous.

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