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A close up photo of a bunch of Lilies of the Valley flowers.

La Fête du Travail: A Tradition of Protests and Flowers

It’s no secret that the French love their holidays. For example, French job contracts must include a minimum of five weeks of vacation per year. However, it is common practice to take more time off than that. Most people go on holiday for a full month every summer, and there are 11 public holidays in France throughout the year. One of the most important of these holidays happened this past Sunday. May 1st. May Day. Labour Day. La Fête du Travail.

A Holiday of Dual Origins

Interestingly, May 1st is actually the celebration of two holidays. The first is May Day, which dates back to Ancient Rome and the Floralia festival honouring the Roman goddess of flowers. May Day was celebrated across Europe for centuries, and was later adopted by Christianity as part of the May devotions to the Virgin Mary. While May Day continues to be celebrated in many countries, another important holiday now shares this date. And this one originated across the Atlantic.

On May 1st, 1886, workers across the United States went on strike to demand an eight hour workday. In Chicago, this led to the Haymarket Affair, where a bomb was denoted among protestors, killing 11 people and injuring hundreds. In 1889, at a worker’s meeting in Paris, May 1st was chosen as the date for an annual demonstration for workers in honour of the tragedy. Since then, Labour Day has become an international celebration of worker’s rights. 

In France, Labour Day has officially been known as La Fête du Travail since 1941, and it is the only public holiday where all employees must be given a paid day off. But don’t be fooled by the word “holiday”. There is a long history of protests and demonstrations associated with La Fête du Travail in France, and in Paris, these protests often turn violent. This past Sunday was no exception, with people from across the political spectrum turning up to voice their anger over the recent French election.

A Holiday of Flowers

La Fête du Travail is very much a trade union and worker’s holiday in France, but it has not lost its May Day roots. If you find yourself in France on May 1st, you may notice people selling flowers on the street. This is a tradition that dates back to the 16th century. King Charles IX was visiting the Drôme region when he was gifted a bouquet of Lily of the Valley flowers. He was so taken with the gift, he started a tradition of giving all the ladies of his court a sprig of flowers every year on May Day.

Today, May 1st is the one day a year that you can sell flowers on the street tax-free and without having to apply for a licence. Thousands of flower stands pop up all over the country, and people buy Lily of the Valleys for their loved ones in order to bring them good luck. It’s estimated that people in France spend over 20 million Euros every May 1st on these flowers.

Joyeuse Fête du Travail

There are many holidays in France, but La Fête du Travail is easily one of the most revered. It’s the one day a year where shops are almost guaranteed to be closed. And in many cities, even public transportation shuts down. It is both a celebration and a call to arms, and personally, I find the dichotomy fascinating. I also find it fascinating that in a country that holds its holidays so dear, people don’t get the following Monday off if May 1st happens to fall on a weekend. It’s one of the many contradictions that I love about France. Even if I grumbled just a bit when my alarm went off yesterday morning because it was business as usual.

Happy Belated La Fête du Travail everyone!

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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