The story of May 8th ~ the celebration of the end of WWII in France

It was on May 8th, 1945 that Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces, announced the official end of World War II marking the end of the six-year war and of Nazi oppression in France.

Surrender document ~ May 1945

So, May 8th is annually celebrated across France and is a national Public Holiday called Victory Day. This year Sandra and I attended the memorial service and celebrations in Ligueil in the South Touraine. All the public buildings along with memorials to resistance fighters were decorated with tricoulours and bouquets of flowers. The whole ceremony consisted of:

  • a memorial gathering at the local cemetary;
  • a gathering at the Church of Saint Martin and a ceremony inside attended by the mayor and local police cheifs;
  • a further ceremony and wreath-laying attended by the local brass band and the full contingent of the Ligueil fire-brigade in the square appropriatly named after General Philippe Leclerc (the man who led the liberation of Paris in August 1944);
  • the whole assembly then marches through the town stopping at significant resistance memorials before ending with speeches and food at the town hall.
  • There are images from the event at the end of this post.

As I watched the event with all its pomp, seriousness and formallity I presumed that such events had happened since the end of the war. But I was wrong, it actually took over 30 years for May 8th to become a public holiday. How it came about is of interest:

Between 1945 and 1953, the end of WW II was marked on two days; the feast day of  Joan of Arc on May 16 and, as in the UK, on Armistice Day, November 11. Then, in 1946, a law was passed decreeing that WWII victory would be celebrated on the second Sunday of May.

It was in 1953 that May 8 officially became a public holiday to mark the end of the war. But this created quite a cluster of public holidays in or around the month of May (May Day, Asscention Day and Whit (or Pentecost) Monday). So, in 1959, a further law was passed putting Victory Day back to to the second Sunday of May. Many military veterans protested against this and continued to commemorate WWII Victory Day on May 8th. This was during the politically charged period of the Algerian War for Independence (1954-62) so, I imagine that the commemorative ceremonies and the campaign to keep the date May 8th was particularly politicaly loaded with, possibly, Gaulist and anti-Gaulist factions on parade. In 1965, the government announced that May 8, 1965, would be a special holiday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the end of World War II. Three years later, in 1968, the government announced that World War II victory celebrations would move to May 8, but it would not be a public holiday and it would be in the late afternoon to minimize disruption to the working day.

In 1975 the French President decided that there would be no official or national commemoration of the end of World War II. Again it is reported that many veterans protested against this decision and continued to commemorate WWII Victory Day locally on May 8.

It was only on October 2, 1981, that WWII Victory Day became a public holiday. One difference between Public Holidays in France and the UK is that if the Public Holiday falls on a weekend then they are not moved to another date, e.g. to the following Monday. So, that’s the end of the story? Well, not quite as there are moves to abolish the May 8th Public Holiday and instead make May 9th a Europe-wide holiday to celebrate Day of Europe.

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About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
This entry was posted in Ligueil, Politics ~ Political Parties, Resistance in the Touraine Region, World War II and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The story of May 8th ~ the celebration of the end of WWII in France

  1. Colin Dyson says:

    An interesting post Jim, I was unaware that May 8th was such a recent and contreversial holiday. Thanks Colin

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