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POLITICS

Marches and muguet: Why May Day is so important in France

May Day is celebrated around the world, but it has particular significance in France.

Marches and muguet: Why May Day is so important in France
Photos: AFP

First and foremost, it’s a day off work, except if it happens to fall on a weekend, in which case it’s not compensated for by a free day on the following Monday.

Unfortunately that is the case this year, when May 1st falls on a Sunday.

READ ALSO Why 2022 is a bad year for holidays in France 

Marches

But there are many French who take a much more active approach to May Day, which in France is a designated day of action. 

Trade unions hold traditional parades on May Day and there are frequently also demonstrations on particular issues.

Flowers

May Day isn’t all about protests and demonstrations, it’s also about flowers. 

On the first of May in 1561, France’s King Charles IX was given a muguet, or lily-of-the-valley in English, as a lucky charm and liked it so much that he decided to offer them each year to the ladies of the court.

These days, the flowers are sold in bouquets on the street around France and people offer them to friends or family members for good luck.

As well as in supermarkets and florists, the flowers are often sold on the street by union activists, with funds going into the union coffers.

Far right events 

France’s extreme-right party, the Rassemblement National, formerly the Front National, for decades held a May Day march from the statue of Joan of Arc at Place des Pyramides in the first arrondissement of Paris.

Femen protestors disrupted the Front National’s traditional May Day march in Paris in 2015. Photo: AFP

Current leader leader Marine Le Pen has in recent years broken with this tradition and held a “patriotic banquet” for up to 2,000 people in another part of Paris.

A tradition borrowed from the Americans

So how did May 1st become such an important day for workers’ rights in France anyway?

Surely there’s nothing more French than protests and demonstrations, but this day of action actually has its origins in a huge strike in Chicago in 1886.

On May 1st, 35,000 workers walked out of their jobs, joined by tens of thousands more in the next couple days, leading a national movement for an eight-hour work day.

Three years later, France decided to establish an “International Workers’ Day” with the same goal, but it didn’t officially become a paid day off until 1941 under the Vichy regime.

In the US and Canada, Labor Day is held on the first Monday in September.

A red triangle on the lapel

In 1890, May Day protesters started adorning their lapels with a red triangle, with the three sides representing the division of the ideal day in three equal parts: work, leisure, and sleep.

For those protesters who still wear pins on their lapels on May 1st, the triangle has since been replaced by a small bouquet of the lily of the valley flower tied with a red ribbon.

Return of les beaux jours

The May 1st holiday can actually be traced back to pagan rituals. For the Celtic people, this day marked the passage from the dark winter months to the return of les beaux jours, or the beautiful, sunny days of spring and summer.

The druids would light bonfires to symbolically protect their livestock from diseases.

May Day events hark back to pagan rituals to mark spring. Photo: AFP

In northeastern France, they called the last night of April the “night of sorcerers”. Children would patrol the villages and gardens, gathering objects that they would then place in the centre of the village, giving the sense of a supernatural intervention.

These days, the last traces of these Celtic rituals only exist in certain parts of France that still practice the tradition of the “tree of May”.

The tree of May

This rather quirky May Day tradition that has mostly fallen out of practice involves young men in some parts of France cutting down a tree during the night between the 30th of April and May 1st and then replanting it by the door of the woman they hoped to marry.

It was a sign of honour and also a celebration of the arrival of May: the month of trees, water, and nature.

Other versions of this tradition saw this May tree placed in front of a church or at the home of a newlywed couple.

Fête de la Terre

During medieval France, this time was a celebration of the season rather than ‘work’, as it was to become. It was named “Fête de la Terre”.

A feast would be hosted for three days in celebration, during which time musical parades would take place with people dancing and riding mules adorned with ribbons through the villages, to an enormous banquet.

This tradition is best preserved in rural areas of France, such as the mountainous department of Isère, or the south west region of Cahors, where the weekend surrounding the 1st is usually one of celebration, using it as an excuse to come together and enjoy the good weather, with parades and markets of regional products.

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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