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Why is May 8th a holiday in France, and will it remain a day off?

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Why is May 8th a holiday in France, and will it remain a day off?
Former French President Charles De Gaulle (C) and Prime minister Georges Pompidou (at his right) marking the 20th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, on May 8, 1965 in Paris, France. (Photo by AFP)

May 8th is VE Day, marking the end of fighting in Europe during World War II - but the story of how it came to be a public holiday in France is a complicated one, with the holiday still up for debate.

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May 8th was not always a public holiday in France, and it is not one in neighbouring Italy, where the fall of the Mussolini regime is celebrated on Liberation Day - April 25th.

By some measures August 25th would be a more fitting day for France's public holiday, considering this is the date when Paris was liberated and the famed picture of General Charles de Gaulle walking down the Champs-Élysées was taken.

Or maybe even June 6th - the first day of the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944 that marked the beginning of the end for the Nazi occupation.

But instead France celebrates the day that hostilities ended for the whole of Europe.

Among the Allied nations, Russia also recognises Victory Day but celebrates it on May 9th, due to time differences in the announcement of the end of the war. 

In the United Kingdom, May 8th is not a public holiday - instead November 11th (Armistice Day) commemorates the dead of all wars, while the United States celebrates Memorial Day on the last Monday in May, in addition to Veterans Day on November 11th. 

A tumultuous history for May 8th in France

Shortly after the war, in 1946, France's government passed a decree recognising May 8th as the day to remember the Allied victory in Europe. The choice of this date aroused controversy from the beginning, as it coincided with the Catholic festival for Joan of Arc.

In 1953, at the behest of those who had survived deportations and members of the French resistance, May 8th was made into a public holiday, or jour férié.

However, only a few years later, it was abolished. In 1959, then-President De Gaulle scrapped VE Day from the calendar of public holidays - part of his goal of reducing the total number of public holidays in France.

Some historians, like André Kaspi, have noted that de Gaulle did not believe May 8th should be the date observed in France. 

"In the eyes of the general, the 'Appel' of June 18th [when de Gaulle broadcast a speech his speech from London urging the French to keep fighting] and August 25th - the day of the liberation of Paris - were more important", Kaspi told Le Parisien.

Instead, for almost a decade, the end of World War II was marked on the second Sunday of May. In 1968, it was once again declared a public holiday, but this did not last long either. 

Under the presidency of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who hoped to improve Franco-German relations, the May 8th holiday was suspended once more.

Giscard d'Estaing hoped to replace it with a celebration for Europe Day, on May 9th - the anniversary of the 1950 Schuman Declaration, which proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community, which would eventually become the European Union.

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Giscard d'Estaing proposed making November 11th a day to commemorate all veterans. However, these plans were not met with support in France, and veterans' associations protested. 

Finally, in 1981, president François Mitterrand put the day back on the calendar, once again marking May 8th as a public holiday in France.

How is it celebrated?

Each year there are ceremonies and wreath-laying events at war memorials and most workers are given a day off.

In Paris, the president lays a wreath at the foot of a statue of General de Gaulle at Place Clémenceau, then walks up the Champs-Élysées, surrounded by the Garde républicaine (Republican Guard), to the Arc de Triomphe. 

Emmanuel Macron (L) speaks to military officers at the Arc de Triomphe as part of the ceremonies marking the Allied victory against Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe (VE Day), in Paris on May 8, 2022. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / various sources / AFP)

The president then reviews the troops and lays another wreath, this time at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and rekindles the flame located there.

Across France, smaller ceremonies are also held in many communes.

Could the date change again?

Armistice Day on November 11th is classified as a "day to honour all the dead of France".

André Kaspi, who authored a 2012 report on VE Day commemorations, told Le Parisien that is thus possible November 11th could be used to combine recognition for veterans of both World Wars, but "it would be a political mistake to do it too soon".

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"It is part of our patriotic memory, in the same way July 14th and November 11th are. Let us not forget that it also corresponds with the end of the concentration camps. As long as there are survivors, as long as the memory of this war exists, it must be preserved", the historian said.

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