TO French people, the first day of May means an eruption of lilies of the valley and communists, in that order - the former being the more dramatic. In the morning, lilies of the valley literally take over the streets, sold by all sorts of people - from Boy Scouts on up. In the afternoon, members of the communist trades union parade through the streets to a gathering place - in Paris, the Place de la Bastille - where, often with lilies of the valley in their buttonholes, they make angry antigovernment speeches.
This May Day on my block in Paris, I counted 40 sellers of muguets (French for lilies of the valley) out on the sidewalks by 8 a.m. To get to the bakery I had to run a gauntlet of variegated vendors, all holding out bunches of the little flowers and crying, ``Muguets portent bonheur!'' (Lilies of the valley bring good luck!) And many of the cakes in the bakery were adorned with paper lilies of the valley.
The great square in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame seemed to have been staked out especially for children, selling muguets to a huge crowd of eager buyers. There were clusters of Boy Scouts and yellow-shirted louveteaux (wolf cubs, or Cub Scouts) standing by card tables or buckets full of lilies of the valley, with hand-lettered signs explaining it was all for a good cause. One Scout had managed to unload a few single stalks for 25 francs, or about $4.25 each.
A more reasonable price was being offered by the smallest vendor I saw at Notre Dame, a gloomy little boy of about four whose older sister had thrust a tiny bakset of muguets into his hand full of cellophane-wrapped bunches of three stalks and two leaves for 10 francs.
Even though May 1 is a French national holiday, the F^ete de Travail or Labor Day, Parisians get up early to buy their muguets. And absolutely all Parisians buy them. Concierges run out in the street in their bedroom slippers and buy pots of muguets to put on their ground floor windowsills. Old men wearing black berets and sour expressions plod home with a baguette and a bunch of lilies of the valley for their wives. Young men, each holding a stock or two of muguets, argue about the coming football match.
But there is a political aspect to all this innocent fun. The muguet-sellers of the Communist Party of France seemed more humorous than ever this year, some charging capitalist prices of 15 francs (about $2.55) for two stalks and a single leaf, and adding a leftish red rose to their potted muguets.
And a few years ago, recalls florist Jacques Vasselin as he sets out buckets of muguets on the sidewalk of the Rue des Archives, ``Out at the central market at Rungis there was a battle between the RPR [Premier Jacques Chirac's conservative ruling party] and the Communist Party to get hold of every single lily of the valley in the market. They came to blows and the police had to break them up!''
The communists may have succeeded in cornering the muguet market this year. I saw not a single RPR booth in central Paris. But the communist muguet booths were thick down at the Bastille end of the Rue St. Antoine, near the long lines of gray-green trucks full of riot police who were on hand - just in case - for the afternoon May Day parade. A curious sight, especially since a 1984 law, thought to be aimed by the government at the communists, prohibits selling flowers on the street without ``authorization'' by the police.
The defendant in the test case which led to this law was a communist muguet-vendor from Chaville, a town near Paris where all this muguet-in-May-mystique is supposed to have started. The woods at Chaville were famous over the centuries for their lilies of the valley. It became a tradition in the month of May to gather Chaville muguets, and the flower eventually became a symbol of luck, love, and even health. Chaville is now a mere suburb of Paris, polluted by industry and automobiles, and there is not a stalk of muguet to be found in the scant and dusty woods that are left.
Most of the Paris street-sellers get cultivated muguets from the river Loire area, via wholesalers. But two or three May Days ago you could still see countrified young people and old women with muddy baskets of lilies of the valley they had picked at dawn in some distant village. This year, I met only two such sellers, on the steps of the church of St. Paul: Christian Jacquinot and her daughter Maryse, who had picked the muguets the day before in a forest near their home town, Dijon, and were selling them out of a cardboard carton.
Madame Jacquinot's generous little bunches of 25 stalks and four or five leaves cost just 10 francs, about $1.70. The stalks were very thin and the white flowers nodding along them were very tiny. They were without cellophane and their fragrance, much fresher and stronger than that of the cultivated muguets, spoke of a dewy, quiet wood on a May morning, perhaps a wood like the one at Chaville before the city overran it.