The first of May, International Workers Day

This is a piece from French State Radio France Info 1/5/23, explaining the meaning and history of the First of May. Contrast with England and the BBC! 

A very strong mobilisation is expected on Monday 1st May throughout France for the traditional marches on this public holiday. Territorial intelligence forecasts between 500,000 and 650,000 demonstrators for this day, which will also be the 13th mobilisation against the pension reform and the first after the promulgation of the text. Why did the unions choose this symbolic date? franceinfo reviews the origins of this day of May 1st and its organization in five questions.

1 What is the origin of May Day?

The origin of May Day is American and dates from the end of the 19th century. In 1886, the country’s trade unions chose this day to organise large demonstrations to demand the eight-hour working day. “The workers had been demanding it since 1884 and then urged companies to switch to the eight-hour day, giving them two years to implement it, with the date of application being 1 May 1886,” explains historian André Larané to France Culture.

The date was not chosen at random. At that time, the first day of May in the United States corresponded to the new accounting year for companies. This day was called “moving day” because many workers’ contracts ended on that date, forcing them to move to find a job elsewhere. While most companies agreed to switch to eight hours, some refused, leading to further demonstrations in the following days. The one on 3 May turned into a tragedy in Chicago with the murder of three demonstrators by the police in the evening.

The next day, May 4, 1886, a bomb exploded during a demonstration killing about fifteen police officers. A tragedy called the Haymarket Square Massacre. “Several workers were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment, but a dozen others were hanged on 11 November 1886”, says André Larané. Those condemned to death became martyrs because there was no evidence of their involvement in the attack. 

2 Since when is May Day celebrated in France? 

Three years later, in 1889, at the Second Socialist International in Paris, it was decided, at the instigation of Jules Guesde, to make May Day a day for demanding the eight-hour day. Among the most notable demands of the Second International was the eight-hour day, which had been demanded since 1884 by the American trade unions,” explained André Larané. It was therefore in reference to these unions and their struggle that a demonstration in favour of the eight-hour day was held every year on 1 May.

In 1891, the demonstration in Fourmies (Nord) turned into a tragedy. Despite the employers’ bans, the strikers marched in this northern textile town. Army troops fired on the demonstrators, killing around ten people. With this new tragedy, the 1st of May became part of the workers’ tradition and was to remain a day of demonstration after the vote by Parliament in 1919 for the eight-hour day. In 1941, Philippe Pétain made May Day the “Labour and Social Harmony Day” and a public holiday, but the holiday was discontinued at the Liberation. It was reintroduced in 1946 before being definitively instituted as a paid public holiday in 1948, according to the website vie

3 Is May Day celebrated everywhere in the world?

With the development of the socialist and communist movement internationally, May Day is celebrated all over the world, whether in Europe, Asia, South America or Africa, and in most European countries, with demonstrations to assert workers’ demands. Many countries, such as France, have chosen to make the day a public holiday and trade unions organise demonstrations to press for workers’ demands.

However, the Americans did not originally take up this demand for May Day, explains André Larané: “The United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not celebrate work or workers on May Day. This is simply because the American unions did not appreciate the Marxist tone taken by the European unions. But there is a Labour Day in the United States and in Canada, this “Labour Day” is actually celebrated on the first Monday of September.

4 Is May Day a compulsory holiday?

Of all the legal holidays, May Day is the only one that is a compulsory holiday. This applies to all employees in all companies and categories. However, there are exceptions, as explained on the website. The companies that can make their employees work on Labour Day are determined by law and are generally those that already benefit from a derogation to the Sunday rest of their employees (hospitals, public transport, for example). However, working on May Day entitles employees to double pay, according to the Labour Code. 

5 Are the unions always united on May Day? 

This year, in 2023, the May Day demonstrations are part of the fight against the pension reform and could be a “historic” day according to government intelligence. In Paris in particular, the unions are calling for demonstrations from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation. A united call from the unions which has not always been the case. The traditional May Day parade is sometimes an opportunity to note the divisions between the principal unions. For example, in 2016, Force Ouvrière and the CGT, opposed to the labour law, marched together for the first time since 2009 but without the support of the so-called reformist unions (CFDT, CFTC and Unsa).

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