What May Day really means to the French

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What May Day really means to the French
Photos: AFP

May Day is celebrated around the world, but it has particular significance in France.


First and foremost. It's a day off.

May 1st is steeped in tradition in France but the reality is, most of the country just see it as a paid holiday, or jour ferié, which means relaxing with friends and family or taking a long weekend, if it falls on the right day.

The day, also known as the Fete du Travail or Labour Day, falls on Monday this year, meaning a nice long weekend for most.

Widespread protests and marches

But there are some French people who take a much more active approach to May Day. 

Labour Day in France is always a designated day of action. Trade unions and other organisations take this day to organise marches and demonstrations to campaign for workers rights and other social issues.

This year, May Day marches are expected to be especially bigger than usual as unions are calling on people to take to the streets to show their anger at recent pension reforms. Marches and demos are planned in more than 100 towns and cities across France and the police presence will be high in the cities.

Demos and flowers: What to expect in France on May 1st 2023

A tradition borrowed from the Americans

So how did May 1st become such an important day for workers' rights in France anyway?

Surely there's nothing more French than protests and demonstrations, but this day of action actually gets its origins from a huge strike in Chicago in 1886.

On May 1st, 35,000 workers walked out of their jobs, joined by tens of thousands more in the next couple days, leading a national movement for an eight-hour work day. 


Three years later, France decided to establish an "International Workers' Day" with the same goal, but it didn't officially become a paid day off until 1941 under the Vichy regime.

Flowers as good-luck charms

But May Day isn't all protests and political events. It's also about flowers.

So, why is May Day also called the Fête du Muguet

On the first of May in 1561, France’s King Charles IX was given a muguet flower, or lily-of-the-valley in English, as a lucky charm and liked it so much that he decided to offer them each year to the ladies of the court.

These days, the flowers are sold in bouquets on the street around France and people offer them to friends or family members for good luck.

You can find them in supermarkets and florists, but many left-wing organisations also set up temporary stalls to sell the flowers, with funds going to the organisation.


A red triangle on the lapel

In 1890, May Day protesters started adorning their lapels with a red triangle, with the three sides representing the division of the ideal day in three equal parts: work, leisure, and sleep.

For those protesters who still wear pins on their lapels on May 1st, the triangle has since been replaced by a small bouquet of the lily of the valley flower tied with a red ribbon.

Return of the beaux jours

The May 1st holiday can actually be traced back to pagan rituals. For the Celtic people, this day marked the change passage from the dark, winter months to the return of the beaux jours, or the beautiful, sunny days of spring. 

The druids would light bonfires to symbolically protect their livestock from diseases.

In northeastern France, they called the last night of April the "night of sorcerers". Children would patrol the villages and gardens, gathering objects that they would then place in the centre of the village, giving the sense of a supernatural intervention. 

These days, the last traces of these Celtic rituals only exist in certain parts of France that still practice the tradition of the "tree of May".


The tree of May

This rather quirky May Day tradition that has mostly fallen out of practice involves young men in some parts of France cutting down a tree during the night between the 30th of April and May 1st and then replanting it by the door of the woman they hoped to marry.

It was a sign of honour and also a celebration of the arrival of May: the month of trees, water, and nature. 

Other versions of this tradition saw this May tree placed in front of a church or at the home of a newlywed couple.

Fête de la Terre

During medieval France, this time was a celebration of the season rather than ‘work’, as it was to become. It was named “Fête de la Terre”. This was also a time to celebrate the shepherds, who worked in the land. 

A feast would be hosted for three days in celebration, during which time musical parades would take place with people dancing and riding mules adorned with ribbons through the villages, to an enormous banquet.

This tradition is best preserved in rural areas of France, such as the mountainous department of Isère, or the south west region of Cahors, where the weekend surrounding the 1st is still one of celebration, using it as an excuse to come together and enjoy the good weather, with parades and markets of regional products.

The National Front's "patriotic banquet" 

Although May 1st is most associated with left-wing politics, France's far-right Rassemblement National have also made an attempt to claim the day as a celebration of 'traditional France'.

Since 1988 the National Front -as the party was then called - marched from Place de l’Opéra to the statue of Joan of Arc at Place des Pyramides in the first arrondissement of Paris.

Current leader Marine Le Pen changed the event to a 'patriotic banquet' for party members, which this year will be held in Le Havre.


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