(asked by Mark P. from California)
Does France celebrate the 5th of May each year? What do Frenchmen feel about this, if it is a holiday? Do they drink tequila or Cerveza Modelo?
Something horrible has happened (ok, I exaggerate a bit). I have recently decided to make changes to this blog. One of them include a different layout (which will likely change again in the near future when I take the time to really think it through and when I will be satisfied with it –I’m not now). The other one was not cosmetic at all. It actually was going to be a very big change on this blog: I was going to proofread what I write and even do research occasionally for some questions.
And it was starting with this one!
Last week, I wrote a very complete and detailed answer to this question. I did research. I had dates, facts and links. I even doubled checked my text for typos (yes, I know, hard to believe…). But once I was finished I did the dumbest thing I have ever done with a computer, something I had never done before, not even when I was a novice with computers: I closed Word and when I was prompted about whether I wanted to save the document or not, I said no! (I mistook it for another random draft) I spent the next couple of hours trying to retrieve it, but apparently, one can retrieve a document when your computer crashes, when Word crashes, when a bunch of terrible things happen to your computer, but not when you closed your document and explicitly told your computer to not save it! And whatever temporary document that is being saved regularly to allow retrieving your document in case of a crash and such is destroyed then!….
And here I am, about a week later, starting all over again… In those cases, you know how it goes, you’re pissed, you know you won’t write as well as the first time, and you want it to be over with as fast as possible. This is in that state of mind that the following answer has been written. Sorry…
So… What do French people do on May 5th?
Here is what they do: they get up, they go to work, they go shopping, some are born, some other die, some are get married, some others get divorced, most if not all of them eat at some point, and many many other different things happen on May 5th in France every year. In other terms, May 5th in France is exactly like May 4th and May 6th and many other days over the span of the year.
Why on Earth would one think that May 5th is a holiday in France? Is January 27th a holiday in the US?
And for the record, Cinco de Mayo –because this is what we’re talking about- is not even a National Holiday in Mexico, it’s just celebrated in the State of Puebla and for some mysterious reason, in the US, where – let’s admit it - it’s mostly an excuse for students to get drunk and not much else.
And before telling you what Cinco de Mayo really is, let me tell you how I was first introduced to it.
It was back in 1999, on May 5th 1999 to be exact. It was the first time I was in the US on a May 5th. I started my day the same way that any French person would start their day on May 5th (see previous paragraph) and when I arrived on campus, something strange happened. Some of my co-workers –those who were Hispanics or had strong ties with the Spanish speaking world- suddenly and out of nowhere found it really amusing that I was French; their reaction being almost invariably “Happy [something in Spanish]! Ha, ha! You’re French! Ha, ha!”
I have to admit that I was more than perplexed by this quite peculiar behavior. Especially because when I asked, the only answer was “It’s [something in Spanish] and you’re French! He, he!”
After enquiring the matter to a more communicative co-worker (one of the few Spanish speaker I knew that just didn’t assume that the whole world spoke Spanish), I understood that the Spanish words that were coming out of their mouth was “May 5th” but in Spanish. I still didn’t understand what was so funny about being French on May 5th though. After further enquiry I learned that it was the day when Mexico won the war against France!
A new development that perplexed me even more…
First, apparently Mexico had won a war in its history, which was news to me.
Stranger thing was that apparently that war was won against France.
I mean, I’m not a historian, but I know French history not too poorly, and I had never heard about a war between France and Mexico, let alone “badly lost” by France.
I checked on a French history book (I didn’t have that many at hand, being in the US and before the age of Wikipedia). I found a couple of lines that said that Napoleon III had sent troops to Mexico to help some dude becoming emperor, but he soon lost interest, so the French army –that was needed in other places to, you know, colonize Africa and other parts of the world- left the place.
Once again, I was facing a perfect example of historical subjectivity (you know, just like when Americans say they defeated the Nazis in 1944-45, conveniently forgetting that the Red Army did most of the work), and I assumed that the truth was somewhere in between what I had just read and what my Hispanic co-worker had told me.
I never really thought about it again, that May 5th of 1999 was the last time I’ve been bothered by this insignificant holiday (my other years in the US were spent in Florida, and apparently, nobody gives a damn about Cinco de Mayo there, just like it should be).
Years later –now- I decided to look into a little bit further (see, I too learn things thanks to this blog) and after reading various interpretations (funny how even the French and the English speaking wikipedias don’t tell exactly the same thing on the issue), here is what I can tell you about the Cinco de Mayo and the Battle of Puebla.

The scene takes place in 1862, there’s a civil war going on in Mexico.

On one side, you have the Republicans (nothing to do with the American nutsos, it’s the international meaning of “Republican” I’m using here, google it if you’re an American Republican and don’t know what the rest of the world knows (I know, you must be used to that feeling by now)) and on the other side, the Monarchists. And France – but also Britain and Spain – had sided with the Monarchists, partly because the three countries were Monarchies at the time, but mostly because the Republicans owed them money that they didn’t want to pay and other things like along those lines.
And on May 5th 1862, in Puebla, a misunderstanding led the Mexicans to believe that the occupying French army was going to attack (when they were actually getting ready to leave the place, heading towards Mexico City) and that resulted in a battle that France lost.
You know, this is how wars work most of the time, some battles are won, some battles are lost.
I’m saying that because it was by no means the end of the French occupation of Mexico. Actually, the French eventually did win Puebla as the city fell one year later, on May 17th 1863. Funny how they don’t celebrate Seventeeno de Mayo in Puebla and the US, but guess what, in France we don’t celebrate it either, this is how much we care about that whole story (when you get involved in World Wars, Napoleonic Wars, Revolutions and other grand things, you don’t really remember about such skirmishes)…
The French armies even occupied Mexico City and a bunch of other cities until 1865 when it all came to an end because of one thing and one thing only.
What was it?
Come on, what did happen in 1865 in the area?
Yes, the US civil war came to an end!
And I guess the US, freaked out at the very thought of not being at war with somebody at some point in their history and went to look for new wars to fight. Luckily for them, just South of the border, there was one going on, so obviously, they had to get involved. For some reason the US decided to be on the side of the Mexican Republicans, which meant that they would have to declare war to France, and to Spain, and to Britain, and to most of Europe (the Austro-Hungarian Empire had just sent of their own to become the new Mexican Emperor). That could have been World War One, 49 years early.
Oh, I’m sure that some of people North of the Border were ready for it, but the Europeans didn’t want to be at war with the US, and definitely not over something like Mexico, so they left.

 Napoleon III
That’s it.
Now you know everything about Cinco de Mayo and why it’s one of the most pointless holiday ever.
Oh, I almost forgot to answer the last question.
Yes French people drink tequila (much less than wine, beer, vodka and rum and not more on May 5th though).
I have no idea what Cerveza Modelo is, so I guess that answers it.
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  16 Responses to “Does France celebrate the 5th of May each year?”

  1. Oh, come on now. Did you really have to take that cheap, warmonger shot at Americans? Most of us agree with you about Cinco de Mayo. Let's be friends.

  2. Sorry, I couldn't help it… :-)
    And I'm not sure it's a cheap shot. The US economy relies partly on being at war. When was the last time the US was not at war?

  3. Interesting article eventhough you write as though you have a chip on your shoulder. Maybe a long lost Great great uncle was killed by a mexican peasant in 1863? Anyway, I just wanted to mention that I found it funny when Europeans frequently mention America and its love of War (and this coming from a Canadian). Is it me or have the French only been "pacifists" since the earlier 60s (Algeria, l'Indochine)? It's not like the French have a long reputation of peacefulness! They just like to think they do :)

  4. I actually liked the "cheap shot" at Americans and chuckled… maybe that's what being an "expat" is about… ; ) I actually thought it was an honest statement, though…

    Cinco de Mayo- hmmmm…. Big U.S. drinking holiday…. along with all of the others… Any excuse to 'get drunk." Actually, I think Americans are festive and just like to celebrate ALL holidays as part of being a 'melting pot nation.'
    Except for in Irish pubs here in France, I didn't even notice that St. Patrick's Day is celebrated here… And, why would it be?? France is not Ireland… but maybe there are the Irish immigrants who keep the traditions while they live here.. Just like all those immigrants who came to settle in the U.S. who brought their culture, traditions, customs and ways with them and kept them going… I really like that about the U.S. - On example — dishes from all over the globe and cuisines that have been "incorporated."
    Take care…

    P.S. I just now realized while writing this comment that I missed Cinso de Mayo… I'm so disconnected here, I totally forgot about it!

  5. -Quebecparis, No I have nothing against Mexico, which doesn't mean I don't like making fun of it (but I realize that it sounds different when one makes fun of Mexico in North America or in Europe).

    As for love for wars, I agree that Europeans have become pacifist quite recently in history (WW2 will do that to people it really affected), but France -and most of Europe- has never based a good chunk of its economy of waging wars abroad (note that most wars we had Europe were on our own soil, and I'll never criticize the US for fighting a war on US soil -with China soon???-, I have issues with the whole "let's destroy other countries so that we can make more money" thing.

    -Leesa, what surprises me about the "incorporation" of Cinco de Mayo in the US is that it's not even a big deal in Mexico, so why is it in the US? For example, St Patrick's day is a big deal in Ireland.

  6. I chuckled too. I was mostly joking.

    Though I see what you mean about our economy historically (particularly with WW2), our recent military activity hasn't been helpful. I also don't think "let's destroy other countries so that we can make more money" is an American value.

    I shudder to think of a war with China on US soil even if it does seem that our current leadership is doing its best to position us for such a nightmare. I hope it never comes to that and right now I don't think that it will. I'm not sure if you were in earnest, but the thought really has crossed my mind.

    I really don't believe Cinco de Mayo is a big deal here…and I've lived in parts of the country where it's most celebrated. It's mostly a Mexican-American holiday (emphasis on American). A chance for them to validate themselves as Mexicans or something. And a chance for everyone else to get drunk. Drinko de Mayo and all that.

  7. :) ) hi hi hi …. Napoleon III was supposed to send some military help to the Romanian Provinces,too.( because back then ,the Principates were about to become independent and needed, as always, money, troops and guns. Apparently, he somehow forgot about it ,I don't know how and then,so our our ancestors had to deal with the turks on their own )… Anyway,I guess Napoleon sent instead my grand-grand-grand-father to build the railroad in the south ( which to me is by far superior to any military help). I have neer heard before about the cinqo de mayo. What I knew about the mexican wars and Juarez came from Karl May's Winettou :) ) Thanks, the post is great.

    p.s. freud would consider returning to the old layout and the old way of writing your posts…

  8. -E, I don't think China will be at war with the US in the foreseeable future, both countries need each other way too much for that. But I also think that the US won't understand what a war really is until one happens on its soil.

    -Rosabell: Yeah, Napoleon III was one of the biggest douches we had as a leader…

  9. Yes, I quite agree. China has no reason to invade the US. Our (US & China) futures are intertwined in many ways. It's a strange thing.

    I really don't think most Americans have the stomach for war…and definitely not on our own soil. Anything close to that (Pearl Harbor, September 11th) in more recent history seems to affront many things deep within the psyche of the nation as a whole. I'm part of the military community and I can honestly say I don't know anyone who likes or advocates war. We have to deal with the realities of it, after all. Living with it in the sense that some countries have is almost unfathomable. You do have a point. Most Americans enjoy a very comfortable distance from the realities of war. Still, I really don't think we're warmongers.

  10. "Still, I really don't think we're warmongers."

    Mmmm…. Ask the Iraqi, the Afghans and many other countries before that what they think about that last statement…

  11. I've actually been in Puebla on May 5th (by coincidence) and they don't even celebrate Cinco de Mayo there. When I realized what day it was, I asked a few people if there were festivities planned, and people looked at me like I was crazy.

    I knew it there wouldn't be the debauched drinking "holiday" as celebrated in the US, after all, but I thought there might at least be a memorial ceremony. But no, it's only in the US that Cinco de Mayo is even considered.

    After realizing this, I used the subject as a conversation starter and a way to practice my Spanish on my trip: Only a few Poblanos (of any age/class/occupation) even knew about the Battle of Puebla, and all of them thought it was quite funny that gringos used it as an excuse to get drunk.

  12. Thanks for you input.
    That's very interesting indeed.

    If any Mexican reads this, I'd love to have their opinion on the thing..

  13. Note for… well, everybody…
    No, I don't publish every comment, especially when those comments are off topic, especially if they will lead to repetitive answers…

    Sometimes I answer by e-mail, but for this I need an e-mail address or a link to a profile, a blog, something… A nickname is not enough.
    And complaining about the fact that I didn't post your comment and still not leaving me any way to respond to you privately whatsoever won't get us very far…

    Thanks for your understanding.

  14. Cerveza Modelo is a kind of Mexican beer, just to let you know.

  15. Thanks. :-)

  16. The Cinco de Mayo 'war' also known as La Guerra de las Pasteles, started, because the French generals & staff used a pastry shop in Mexico City as a place of operations. According to the Mexicans, the French didn't pay for their pastries (due to their being 'occupiers' of Mexico). The bill came to something like $58 thousand (in US) dollars. When the Mexican gov't demanded payment, the French sent a flotilla of gunboats to the eastern cities of Mexico. Here the War of the Pastries starts. The War isn't a national Mexican holiday. If there is a possible comparison, my Mexican friends say it is comparable to the US' Labor Day. There is somewhere in France a statue or memorial to the French occupation. I cannot recall where it is.

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