Lily of the valley and workers’ rights: May 1 is special day in France

The day is also associated with spring and a celebration of patriotism (by some)

May 1 is typically a day of workers’ rights, patriotism, and lily of the valley flowers

Did you know that May 1 is considered to be a special day in France?

It is not only seen as a symbol of the arrival of spring and summer, but also of workers’ rights (represented by a distinctive flower) and a celebration of patriotism.

The day is considered to be so special that most national and public places are closed, including banks, schools, post offices, businesses, and major attractions such as the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Traditions associated with the first day of the month include:

La fête du Travail 

This day is typically marked with workers’ marches and gatherings to celebrate workers’ rights. 

The date itself is also the only ‘real bank holiday’ day that workers are legally entitled to have off from work (despite there technically being 10 other jours fériés, or ‘bank holiday days’, per year). 

It has been a public holiday since 1947, but its associations go back much further.

Read also: A brief history of the May 1 holiday in France

Workers cannot be docked any pay if they do not work on the date, and cannot be asked to work overtime on other days to ‘make up’ for the day off.

However, if the date falls on a day that is usually not a working day (e.g. Sunday), workers are not entitled to take another day (e.g. a weekday) off instead.

Some employees may be required to work on May 1, if they are “employed in a company which, due to the nature of the activity, cannot interrupt work (hospitals, public transport, for example)”, states government website

Anyone who is required to work on May 1 for the above reason is entitled to double pay for that day. 

Read also: May 1: Origins of the springtime day for worker rights 

‘National day’

Nationalists have long used May 1 as an opportunity to celebrate what they see as French values. This is not to be confused with the Fête Nationale (France's national day, often referred to in English as Bastille Day), which takes place on July 14.

Far-right party the Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) has typically celebrated the historical figure Jeanne-d’Arc on this day. 

However, this year (2024) it is abandoning this tradition and holding a new Fête de la nation event in Le Havre instead. Around 1,400 people are expected to attend.

“It’s a social choice in today’s context,” said an RN representative, in a nod to what it said were “big scores” in last year’s legislative elections, especially in areas that do not typically score well for the RN.

Leader Marine Le Pen is expected to speak at the event, as is the party president, Jordan Bardella.

A ‘counter demonstration’ by numerous anti-RN associations is also expected to take place in Le Havre on the same day.

Lily of the valley

Flowers of lily of the valley, called ‘muguet’ in French, are traditionally given in France on May 1 to bring luck and good wishes for the season ahead.

Read also: French producers struggle to slow lily of valley bloom ahead of May 1 

The tradition is said to date back to May 1, 1561, when King Charles IX was given a lily of the valley to bring him luck. 

He enjoyed it so much that he decided to make a new tradition in which the women of his court would be given a lily of the valley flower every year on the same day.

The flower later became seen as a sign of love to sweethearts, and boys also began to wear them as buttonhole sprigs. 

Nowadays, they are exchanged by both family, lovers, and friends, as a token of happiness and luck.

Read also: May 1: Who do French people give muguet to and does it still matter?

The flower is seasonal; it has usually bloomed by the end of April and lasts well into May, making it an abundantly-available symbol and a real sign of spring. Finding a sprig of the bell-shaped white flower with 13 blooms is said to bring even more luck.