August, France's designated month of national inertia, is not halfway through, yet already the supermarkets have had special rentrée aisles in place for well over a month, stacked with garish satchels and lunchboxes so that kids go back to school at the start of September fully equipped. You'd think French parents couldn't wait to ship the little bandits back into captivity.
I have no evidence that this is so, I should hasten to add. As a general proposition, French parents have an easier, or at least quieter, relationship with their children than their British counterparts. They are no more likely to exclude the kids from outings, even late into the evening, than they are to leave their neurotic little dogs at home. Sometimes, true, the measured politeness with which the Gallic generations address one another can strike the British onlooker as faintly chilling – until the next time you see a British child throwing a weapons-grade tantrum in a public place. But I digress.
No doubt, part of the reason for the supermarket pre-emption is changed consumer behaviour. French retailers are no more immune to the migration of their customers online than British. The same desperation that now makes UK stores begin their Easter promotions around lunchtime on Boxing Day is possibly inducing French supermarkets to try to exploit the return to work even before people have started their holidays.
La rentrée signifies much more than a new school term. It is a national catharsis, deeply embedded in the operating software of every French adult, and not just because of the tradition (latterly eroding) that everyone who can do so takes their main annual holiday in the same August weeks as everybody else. La rentrée is France knuckling back down to work, resuming normal service and restoring grown-up topics to the news schedules.
It is also a rite of the passing year, a gear change in life's rhythmic journey, rather than an official deadline. It is the designated moment when summer ends and autumn begins.
The French are obsessed with these seasonal markers, and the rituals that go with them. It can be hard to get a handle on. The ones the British fuss most about, Christmas, for example, the French celebrate calmly and privately. On the ones we scarcely notice – VE Day, Ascension Day, Assumption – everything here comes to a halt. No French household would be caught without a vase of mimosa to replace the festive crib, or lily-of-the-valley on Labour Day, or a ticket to the fireworks on Bastille Day (14 July), or a Galette des Rois on Epiphany.
Beyond that, each locality has its own calendar. In Montpellier, there is a seamless succession of civic-backed festivals from February to October, and plenty of regular diversions outside those months. In this city of 70,000 undergraduates, academia adds another layer of ritual. You learn to monitor the fluctuating volumes of young, phone-fixated cerebellum on the trams, eager for pizza after a tough day on Wikipedia.
All nations have their flag days, of course, but the difference in France is that they are very much participatory. In Britain, most seasonal events are passively received from afar: the Boat Race, the Proms, the Grand National, Ascot, Budget Day. Attempts to instil communal enthusiasm for marking the calendar – such as my friend Dennis Canavan's cheerleading for St Andrew's Day – seem doomed to indifference. When I was a boy, the Today
programme tried to involve us by playing the national anthem on royal birthdays. All it instilled in me was bafflement as to why the Queen needed two birthdays. I'm still baffled.
In France, by contrast, it needs only the flimsiest excuse to throw up the food stands and wine tents, and invite everyone along. Better still if the due day falls midweek and can be turned into un pont (bridge), a semi-official extension of one day off into four or five by stretching it to the weekend.
My own theory is that the instinct to ritualise seasonal change is an atavistic memory from the time, not long ago, when France was predominantly an agricultural society, with sufficiently versatile terroir and climate to be self-sufficient. Cusps in produce cycles, definitive then, are heeded yet. They're most visible in the markets, which people still like to visit daily to assess what’s current and good, and to plan supper around it. The changes can be abrupt. One week, every other stall is piled high with sacks of walnuts. The next, there is not a nut in sight, but there are apricots by the hodful, or soft white onions, or grapefruit the size of basketballs. Fresh purple garlic? Ah, must be June.
It is a wonderful way to pace the passing year, and it has the added virtue of making the French consumer doggedly resistant to the globalised shopping list. French shoppers see no point in eating melon, say, year-round. The time to eat melon is July, when the striped charentais are fresh from the soil and pulsing with fleshy sweetness. Once that's passed, you eat something else.
This year, though, has brought some disruption to the orderly procession. Things have been turning up out of sync, or of dubious quality, or not at all. The radishes were superlative: plump, full of bite and endless. But the figs are late, expensive, and so far not very good. Our exquisite neighbours, the flamingos, have evacuated to the outermost Camargue as their coastal lagoons turn to baked mud. Plus, of course, there are fears for the grape harvest, though when are there not? Place your orders now, messieurs, the vintage may be scant!
The reason is plain. This summer already seems to have gone on forever. If that sounds to you like a pleasure rather than an ordeal, then you have not experienced la Canicule with its temperatures in the mid-40s Celsius (somewhere over 110 in old money). Canicule translates inadequately as heatwave. Think of it all written in capital letters.
At its height (like the day our car thermometer hit 46 in a beach car park, falling only to 44 once we hit the road), it was simply unbearable. To step outside stung the skin, like standing too close to a fire. Though the heat made headlines only when it broke records, we have had week upon week of pitiless sun and no rain.
The furnace, still in the mid-30s (mid-90sF) as I write, is the talk of the steamie. As a rule, la météo is regarded as a dull topic of conversation, best left to the Brits, especially here in the south where the weather is rarely volatile. But this year, everyone is exhausted, tetchy and grouching about the heat. It also, incidentally, lends some credibility to President Macron's frequent climate change sermons.
So perhaps the supermarkets are not jumping the rentrée gun solely from commercial despair. Perhaps they see a positive opportunity. Perhaps they've calculated that people won't mind being told prematurely that this particular summer is coming to an end. 'Summer's lease hath all too short a date,' said Shakespeare. Maybe not this year.