Labour Day in France is a day with a rich history and cultural significance that goes beyond just a day off from work.
Known as La Fête du Travail, it’s a day to honor the achievements of workers and the labor movement, while also raising awareness about ongoing labor issues in the country. As such, it is always designated as a day of action. Unions and other organizations use this day to organize marches and demonstrations to campaign for workers’ rights and other social issues.
This year, May Day marches are expected to be 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.
The Origins of Labour Day in France
Labour Day in France has its roots in the United States, where the first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882. It quickly spread to other countries, including France, where it was officially recognized as a public holiday in 1947.
The holiday has its origins in the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, workers were fighting for better working conditions, higher wages, and the right to organize. The movement culminated in the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago, where a bomb exploded during a labor demonstration, killing several people.
The French labor movement dates back to the 19th century, when workers began to organize themselves into unions to push for better wages, safer working conditions, and other improvements to their quality of life. One of the most famous early labor leaders in France was Eugene Pottier, who wrote the lyrics to the “Internationale,” the anthem of the socialist movement.
The labor movement gained momentum in the early 20th century, with the establishment of labor unions and the formation of political parties that represented the interests of workers. These efforts eventually led to the recognition of Labour Day as a public holiday.
The day is not just about politics, however. May Day in France is also known as the Fête du Muguet, a tradition that dates back to 1561 when King Charles IX was given a muguet flower as a lucky charm. He liked it so much that he started offering them to the ladies of the court every year, and the tradition stuck.
Today, the flowers are sold on the streets and in shops and are often exchanged between friends and family members as a sign of good luck.
Another May Day tradition in France is the wearing of a small bouquet of Lily-of-the-Valley tied with a red ribbon on the lapel of one’s jacket. This tradition originated in 1890 when protesters started wearing a red triangle on their lapels to represent the division of the ideal day into three equal parts: work, leisure, and sleep. Today, the red triangle has been replaced by the Lily-of-the-Valley, a symbol of luck and happiness.
The “tree of May” is another quirky May Day tradition that has mostly fallen out of practice but still exists in some parts of France. Young men would cut down a tree during the night between April 30th and May 1st and then replant it by the door of the woman they hoped to marry. It was a sign of honor and a celebration of the arrival of May: the month of trees, water, and nature.
Top photo by Museums Victoria