The Fête du Travail falls on a Sunday
Yesterday was May 1st, also known as the Fête du Travail in France. In the English speaking world, it’s called Labour Day or World’s Workers’ Day and is recognized in 160 countries across the globe. Apart from very few countries that don’t celebrate it, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it is mostly acknowledged.
In the UK, workers are pretty lucky: Labour Day always falls on the first Monday in May, making it a Bank Holiday.
However, in France, there is no such thing. If May 1st falls on a weekday, all good and well, workers get the day off; but if it happens to fall on a Sunday then it’s too bad. Their loss… which is the case this year. Everybody went back to work this morning! Well, we wanted to live in France, so we have to take the good and the bad!
May 1st and Lily of the Valley
As previously mentioned in another of our posts, it is traditional for the French to buy and offer bunches of lily of the valley on May 1st, as a good luck symbol. On that day, most shops remain shut but certainly not florists: it’s their most lucrative day of the year along with Mothers’ Day, Christmas and Valentine’s.
It’s also the one day in the year when any person who wishes to is allowed to sell this pretty little flower (the sale of any other flower is forbidden), a practice tolerated in order to keep up with tradition. But there are some strict rules: the “muguet” needs to be sold as is, meaning neither in pots nor in floral preparations. The seller must not position himself less than 40 metres away from a professional florist and can only sell wild lily of the valley, picked in the woods, for example.
When we go to Sunday market on that day, we always stop to buy a couple of bunches for our respective mothers. There are sellers all along the street leading to market place, so we are spoilt for choice, and at 5 euros a bunch, we are not breaking the bank.
Traditional May 1st demonstrations
But there is another side to May 1st besides pretty lucky flowers. There is a very strong tradition of workers’ demonstrations in France, with unions marching all over the country. Even though it is a highly followed practice, surprisingly, it doesn’t originate in France. The traditional May Day workers’ parade originated in the United States before settling in France in the late 19th century. But that’s another story…
Anyway, yesterday was no exception, with 21,000 people marching in Paris alone. The Ministry of the Interior announced that 116,500 demonstrators took to the streets in France, while the CGT (the General Confederation of Labour union) claimed that there were “more than 210,000” people on the streets. Sadly, as in most demonstrations with such high numbers of participants, violence took over in Paris.
Most demonstrators are genuine and do not tend to be violent or cause any damage. May 1st is mostly political and people usually demonstrate against the government and in defence of workers’ rights. Yesterday was a particularly awaited event, as President Macron was re-elected just one week ago.
We could have gone to Nantes or Rennes to take part yesterday, but decided against it and are rather pleased with our decision. Why? Well, read on…
The Black Blocs
There is another breed of demonstrator in France: the Black Blocs. These are masked people dressed in black (usually young men) and form fleeting groups within a demonstration. Their objective is to commit illegal actions as an anonymous, unidentifiable crowd.
Yesterday, once again due to the violent nature of the Black Blocs’ participation in Paris, French police had to move in, firing rounds of tear gas while bank windows were being smashed, as well as those of a fast-food restaurant, a real estate agency, a travel agency and even an organic food shop. 8 firefighters and members of the police force were injured and 45 people were eventually arrested. These events made the news headlines once again this morning.
According to some accounts heard on various satellite radio stations, black-blocs are generally very young (16 to 24 years old) and take advantage of the break-ins to do their “shopping” in the ransacked shops. The problem with some of them being so young and often still under 18 is that they’re usually quickly released and cannot be prosecuted. Others do get charged but because they operate in a temporary, faceless fashion, they are incredibly difficult to identify and catch.
It’s a great shame that such an important event as May 1st should be spoilt by a minority whose violence overshadows the real aim of this tradition. Sadly, Black Blocs don’t limit their action to that particular date, interfering with the majority of events in France. As expats living in Brittany, we tend to avoid these demonstrations as a rule and to be honest, judging by the increasing actions of the Black Blocs, we are not in a hurry to change our mind.