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May Day in France: workers rights and lily of the valley flowers

May Day or La Fête du Travail is a public holiday in many countries including France. It is an occasion to celebrate workers rights, but also to offer some lily of the valley flowers to loved ones!

Background

For millions of workers around the world, the first May is their day! In the late 19th century, American labor unions were fed up with being overworked in dangerous conditions and with little pay. So in 1884, the Federation of organized trades and labor unions met in Chicago and had one major demand: an eight-hour workday! And on May 1st 1886, over 300,000 American workers went on strike. Three days later, thousands of strikers met in Haymarket square where a riot broke out between policemen and workers. A bomb was thrown into the crowd, killing several people. It was called the Haymarket Massacre. Since then, May 1st is International Workers Day (sometimes Labor Day) in many countries around the world. While every country’s workers have a different history behind May Day, they all commemorate those who have and continue to give their lives for workers’ justice.

Labor Day in France

Like in many countries around the world, May 1 is a public holiday in France. It is the only day of the year when employees are legally obliged to be given leave (except for some professions that cannot be interrupted, like in hospitals or public transport for example). Even if the eight-hour working day was officially introduced in France on April 23, 1919, trade unions still organize parades all over the country to defend workers’ rights every year. In France, May Day is also referred to as La Fête du Muguet (Lilly of the Valley Day), as people traditionally give bouquets to loved ones, especially in Paris… but why? Well, this tradition goes back to 1561. King Charles IX of France was given a lily of the valley flowers as a present on May 1. He liked it so much that he decided to present lily flowers to the ladies of his court each year on May 1. So lily of the valley flowers have no relationship with workers, but French sense of romance made it work!