Why is May 1st a public holiday in France? Origins and history of May Day

Published by Caroline J. · Published on 8 April 2021 at 10h20 · Updated on 12 April 2021 at 22h04
May 1st is a public holiday in France celebrating May Day, aka French Labor Day. But do you really know why is May 1st a public holiday? We tell you more about it.

As the other 10 dates on the calendar, May 1st is a public holiday in France, and in other countries over the world. If many of you know French people are celebrating their own Labor Day, aka May Day on every May 1st, do you know exactly why and do you know where the celebration originates from? Unlike other public holidays in France, May 1st originates from the United-States.

It is on May 1st, 1884 that American labor unions decided to unite and claim for eight-hour workdays. Why on May 1st? In the US, this date used to be the first day of the companies’ fiscal year. Two years later, on May 1, 1886, as these wage demands have not been heard yet, large protests are held. On the occasion, over 300,000 workings pacifically protest in the country. On May 3rd, in Chicago, several strikers die in a protest. The day after, still in Chicago, a bomb blows up and clashes make several casualties among the police.

Even though medias were not as developed as today’s, these protests do have consequences in France. Thus, in 1889, in Paris, the 2nd Socialist International Congress (or Congrès de la IIe Internationale socialiste) decides – as urged by Jules Guesde – to make of May 1st a day of protests. The first one is celebrated on May 1st, 1890.

Revendications are the same as in the United States. But the situation capsizes on May 1st, 1891. Nine dead and about thirty wounded are reported in Fourmies, North of France.

The reach of May 1st is even greater in France. In April 1919, following the vote of the Parliament for an eight-hour work day, May 1st officially becomes a public holiday.

In 1941, as France is set under the Vichy regime, Maréchal Pétain claims May 1st will be “May Day and Social concord Day” (as a reference of the Vichy regime’s motto: “Work, Family, Homeland”). With the Liberation, this day disappears until April 26, 1946 when the French government decides to reintroduce it. In 1948, May 1st becomes definitively established as a public holiday, a paid day off for employees.

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