Known as la fête de la victoire 1945, May 8 is an important date in modern French history. It has been a public holiday since 1982 and it has been celebrated in various ways since 1945. This date is also widely celebrated across Europe, as V-E Day in Britain, for example.
On May 7, 1945, in Reims, a French city northeast of Paris, the German High Command signed the Instrument of Surrender, ending World War II in Europe. France witnessed the signing by Germany, The Allied Expeditionary Force and the Soviet High Command on that day, and the next day – May 8 – again signed as witnesses to further signatures by the leaders of the German armed forces and the Allied Expeditionary Force. The Instrument actually took effect at 23:01 on May 8. Due to issues raised by the Soviet government, an unconditional Act of Military Surrender was also signed just before Midnight on May 8 in Berlin.
This surrender ended the occupation of most of France by Germany following the French defeat in the Battle of France and the arrival of German troops in Paris on June 14, 1940. Initially, France was occupied only in the North and West, and a French government was established in Vichy to control the so-called Free Zone (zone libre) in the South. Italy occupied a small region around Menton, near the Italian border.
In November 1942 Germany and Italy occupied the Free Zone. The Italian areas were occupied by Germany following the surrender of Italy in September 1943. Guerrilla resistance had begun in the summer of 1943, but the whole country was not liberated until 1945, following the D-day landing of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
On that first May 8 in 1945, all the church bells across France rang at 15:00, while General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces, made a celebratory speech on radio. That day and the next were declared exceptional holidays and the people crowded the streets singing the “Marseillaise” and other patriotic songs.
How it is Celebrated
The day was celebrated in various ways before becoming a national holiday, including one notorious time when in 1975 the then president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, stated that the celebration would end on the 30th anniversary of the surrender, in the interests of Franco-German relations. This move was strongly opposed by the war veterans who continued to celebrate until the holiday was officially reinstated in 1981.
Today, as a public holiday, schools, offices, banks and most shops are closed. People fly the French flag, le tricolore, from their houses and the red, white and blue colours are widely used for decoration. There are military parades in many cities with speeches from important figures, including the President. Patriotic songs are widely sung.
Originally a time to remember the sacrifices of those who fought against the occupation, as the numbers of veterans dwindles the day has become more of a general holiday.
May 8 is also the traditional feast day of Jeanne d’Arc, who liberated Orléans in 1429. La bonne Lorraine, as she is widely known in France, is an enduring symbol of French nationalism and patriotism, thus linking well with Victory Day.