May Day – Labor Day in France

May Day - Labor Day in France
Flower stand selling lilly of the valley and other May Day flowers

This morning we are on our way to our usual mid week visit to the gym when – they are closed! Why would that be? They’re selling some kind of flowers on every street corner – what are they and why? After I went for a compensatory run along the Seine, I came home to investigate. I knew it was Labor Day in France, but didn’t think that would have much impact on commercial enterprises. Turns out that it does, and that May Day – Labor Day in France are closely linked together. La Fête du Muguet, La Fête du Travail.

I found an article that explains the tradition. Lillies of the valley were first presented to King Charles IX in 1561 and, liking this gift, he started presenting lilies of the valley to the ladies of his court on May 1st. By about 1900, it was common for men to present lilies of the valley on May 1st as a sign of their affection, and in modern times flowers are more commonly presented to family and friends. The government permits the sale of these flowers (and dog rose flowers) by individuals and organizations on May 1st without need to pay tax or conform to retail sales rules. People will respond to economic incentives, so you see flowers being sold in many places along the street.

In 1919, the government legalized the 8 hour work day and made May 1st the official Labor Day holiday for France. It also turns out to be Labor Day for most of the rest of the World, except in the US. From the linked article:

Trade unions and other organizations organize parades and demonstrations to campaign for workers rights on May 1. People may also use these events to campaign for human rights in general, to demonstrate against racism or highlight current social issues.

This year’s Labor Day activities follow close on the heels of a report that Eurozone unemployment has risen to a record 12.1% overall, and the French government recently reported record numbers of unemployed. Unemployment in Spain and Greece is at levels above 27%, more than in the US during the Great Depression. Labor Day should have some interesting commentary.

So we think that Labor Day is different in France than in the US, where mostly it seems we get ready to shop the Labor Day sales and many businesses do not close. Then I read today’s Seattle Times – the police are hoping they will be better prepared for potential protests during this year’s 13th annual May Day march for worker and immigrant rights in Seattle. Ten thousand are expected to participate. Living in France is helping us to better know our local community at home.

1 comment

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  1. Ardis Morrow

    You are right – I read somewhere why our labor day is different than
    other countries but I’ve already forgotten the reason. We did have
    it on May 1st in the beginning and then it was changed to Sept. I’ll
    have to look that up
    The demonstrators are gathering in Seattle. They started around 2
    or 3 p.m. and are amassing – so far peacfully.

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