While France Vacations, Francois Hollande Lowers Expectations

The long summer vacation -- les grandes vacances -- just started in France. From July 14 (Bastille Day) to September 2, one citizen out of two will be disconnected from work or business, and one out of two will be out of town, if not out of the country. Some people will leave for one week or two, some others for three weeks or more. Many upper-middle-class or upper-class families still stick to a traditional two-month pattern: wives and children start their vacation as early as possible in July, while husbands join them for most of August.

Middle-class families focus on August. Youngsters nomadize on low-budget lines throughout France, Europe, and even more exotic places, from the Americas to East Asia. The ethnic French working class stays idle at home or resorts to camping. The immigrant working class flies back for Ramadan to the old country (usually North or sub-Saharan Africa) where their French income turns them into rich visitors.

Foreigners may wonder how the French do it, especially when an economic tsunami is looming over all of Europe. For the French, however, this is not even an issue: vacation is as sacred to them as Yom Kippur is to Jews. Woe to presidents or governments that fail to understand that. Eight years ago, in 2004, conservative prime minister Jean-Luc Raffarin attempted to abolish one legal holiday, Pentecost Monday, during the holiday-saturated months of May and June. The Catholic Church did not object (in religious terms, it is Pentecost Sunday only that matters). But the populace did.

On the first "working Pentecost Monday,” most employees, including civil servants, simply did not show up, and nobody in higher management dared to substract that illegally unworked day from the monthly check. It went on like that year after year ever since then. By now, Pentecost Monday, while not mentioned anymore in the calendar, has been fully restored as a national holiday for all practical matters.

In a similar way, Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing conservative president, blundered when he suggested in 2007 that people should be allowed to work more in order to earn more. The proposal sounded decidedly obscene, and as such played an important role in mobilizing voters against him in 2012.