On May 1st, France celebrates Labour Day by not working.
We’re not the only ones – International Labour Day is celebrated on this day throughout Europe and around the world. But la Fête du Travail, as it’s called here, brings several thoughts to my mind:
First, the word ‘travail’ in old French means suffering and torment. While not often used in English it still has connotations of painful ordeal, as in the travails of labour and childbirth. This may explain something about the way work is perceived in France.
Second, what’s to celebrate?
We have a Socialist government, more paid days off than just about any other nation (the Germans beat us by a couple of days, yet somehow manage to remain productive), and one of the highest charged-salary costs in the world. Yet we spend more time and energy sentimentalizing about the history of workers and unions and days of glory past than we do getting down to it.
So here’s a thought: instead of Fête du Travail, how about we rename this holiday, “Faites du travail.” Same sound, different meaning. “Do some work day” would be much more appropriate and timely in the current economic context.
Don’t get me wrong. I like my holidays and long weekends as much as anyone, but seriously folks, if somebody doesn’t get to work pretty soon we are going down with Greece.
Okay, that’s my rant. Now for the sweeter side of May 1st in France.
May day, as the holiday has been traditionally called throughout the centuries, is also a day to herald the coming of spring.
It is traditional to offer a sprig of muguet, or lily of the valley, on the first day of May. The plant grows wild in various parts of the country and especially in Ile de France, the region surrounding Paris. This delicate white flower is sold on the streets by just about anyone who can find some (the government officially allows individuals and associations to sell it without paying sales tax on this day).
The sweet-smelling, delicate flower of the muguet is also poisonous. Hmm. Looks pretty, smells sweet. But can be toxic. Perhaps it’s an appropriate symbol for la Fête du Travail.