La Fête du Travail or Labor Day falls on May 1st. An occasion to campaign for and celebrate workers’ rights, it’s been a national holiday in France since 1947.
Lily of the Valley
On this day, many French people give bouquets of Lily of the Valley or dog rose flowers to loved ones. Families with children in country areas get up early and go into the woods to pick the flowers. In cities, you’ll find individuals and labour organizations selling bouquets of lily of the valley on the street.
According to legend, King Charles IX started the Lily of the Valley tradition on May 1st in 1561 when someone gave him the flower as a good luck symbol. He was touched by this gift and decided to present the flower to the ladies of the court every May 1st.
Fast forward to the 19th century. On May 1st 1886, American union workers in Chicago went on strike to demand an eight hour work day. After four days, police killed a dozen workers when trying to disperse the strikers.
A month later, Socialists gathered in Paris to celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution and declared May 1st would be an international workers’ rights day in remembrance of those killed.
Their original symbol was a red triangle symbolizing eight hours of work, eight of sleep, and eight of leisure. It was eventually replaced by the dogrose flower, then in 1907 by the Lily of the Valley in remembrance of Charles IX’s court.
The eight-hour working day was officially introduced in France on April 23, 1919, and May 1st became a public holiday. May Day was not observed during World War II and became a public holiday again in 1947. May 1st officially became known as La Fête du Travail in 1948.
Today, trade unions and other organizations organize parades and demonstrations to campaign for workers rights on this day. People also use these events to campaign for human rights in general, to demonstrate against racism or highlight current social issues.