Last Tuesday, 1 November, was a bank holiday in France: Toussaint,
short for tous les saints
, or All Saints Day. This coming Friday, 11 November, is also a bank holiday: Armistice Day. The French term for a bank holiday is un jour férié
. A cynic might think that un weekend férié
puts it better. For a great many French workers, an official day off work is there to be spun into multiple days of leisure.
This is due to a fine old French folk art called faire le pont.
The phrase literally means to build the bridge; and that is its metaphorical meaning here too, since it means bridging the gap between a designated day off and the nearest weekend, and thereby turning it into a multi-day jolly.
The essence of the pont
is that French bank holidays, of which there are at least 11 a year, take place on the due calendar date and not, as in the UK, on the nearest Monday. This lends a certain casino quality to the question of how much hookey can be played, since a jour férié
can sometimes fall at the weekend, with no compensatory day off. Connoisseurs of faire le pont
have been fretting that no fewer than four of this year's holidays occur on Saturdays or Sundays. By and large, though, the seekers of pleasurable inactivity come out ahead.
, you book an extra day's leave between the holiday and the weekend, so creating a satisfying mini-break. It is not unknown for people to pon
t from a Wednesday – especially in smaller service businesses, which often take Monday off anyway to compensate for opening on Saturdays. Many employers have given up trying to ration pont
days and simply pont
the whole business. Pont
days here in Montpellier find most small shops and offices closed, and the shopping malls mobbed.
Some effort is made to infuse the jour férié
with a legitimacy that raises it above a common skive. Many are drawn from the liturgical calendar and bear a patina of noble piety, even in an ever more secular France. So it is with Ascension, Pentecost, Assumption and, of course, Easter and Christmas. Some also have odd traditions attached, which lend them an air of dutiful ritual.
For the May Day holiday (Fête du Travail)
, it is customary to display bunches of lily of the valley, and stalls selling them appear in profusion at least a week beforehand. The practice is said to date back more than 450 years to King Charles IX who, well, liked lily of the valley. At Toussaint
, the same goes for tightly-bunched chrysanthemums, which can be trusted to flower in November. There the origin is more modern. Chrysanthemums are the traditional French flower of mourning, and the custom is widely held to date to the end of the First World War when every family had someone to mourn.
It all pales beside France's most notorious icon to indolence, the 35-hour working week. The Aubry Law – named after Martine Aubry, Labour Minister in Lionel Jospin's left-wing government – reduced the working week from the 39-hour limit introduced under President Mitterand. Initially implemented as a voluntary measure backed with employer tax incentives in 1998, it became mandatory in 2000 for companies with 20 or more employees. Aimed at reducing unemployment and enhancing quality of life, it has ever since been vigorously challenged by those who say it makes businesses unviable… and defended with equal vehemence by France's beefy trade unions.
In truth, there is less to its impact than meets the eye. Employees can lawfully work longer, but everything over 35 hours is paid at statutorily defined rates of overtime. Successive tweaks have raised and annualised overtime limits and enhanced help for firms to meet the guarantee that no worker would be made worse off by the transition from 39 hours to 35. Overall, unemployment did come down a bit and shifts became less rigid, with annualised overtime limits supporting seasonal flexibility. French employees still work an average of 39 hours per week, much as they did before the reforms. In the skimpily regulated UK the average is 42.3 hours, the longest in Europe.
What is open to debate is whether the reforms encouraged, or merely reflected, a general tendency in France to think there are better uses for one's time than paid labour. Once in a while, if you listen carefully, you will hear a faint but joyful chirrup in the air of Montpellier. It is not the call of the emerald parakeets that flit among our treetops, nor of the percussive summer cicadas, nor of the flamingos in the nearby étangs
. It is the sound of the Aitkens calling at a shop, restaurant, gallery, clinic, or ticket office and finding it actually open for business.
Places of commercial or official interaction are very often not open here in south-west France, and often for reasons that bear no very explicit rationale. They're just closed, until such time as they open. People down here, especially in socialist-run cities like ours, justify this attitude on the admirable principle of preferring not to sacrifice precious family quality time to the ravenous vulgarities of profit. People elsewhere in France explain it in less political terms, most of which refer to feckless southerners who spend far too much time sitting around in the sunshine.
As a guest in the country, I steer well clear of this debate, but cannot escape some bemusement at the food shop that closes for lunch, the garden centre that closes on public holidays, or our local artisan baker, whose shutters stay down at weekends when other boulangeries
are going like the clappers to supply Sunday lunch-parties.
One swiftly learns to Google any business likely to own a website, to check what the nominal opening hours are. This action is not to be trusted to tell you whether the place is open, but can sometimes tell you that it is not. You may still face a wasted journey across town to find that the establishment has shut its doors for an hour in deference to slow trade, ennui, peckishness, or whim. I hesitate to single out my hairdresser in this context, for fear that he take a terrible revenge.
For the mature Brit, it is like going back to the early 1970s. Most shops, including some of the bigger ones, close for lunch. So do pharmacies, health clinics, post offices, banks and public offices. I was once threatened with forced removal by a bull-necked cop for trying to get into the Préfecture two minutes before the official end of the lunch break. And, here in Montpellier at least, nothing, but nothing, stirs after 1pm on a Sunday. It is like the cryogenic Presbyterian sabbaths of my youth. That said, we were recently in Marseilles on a Sunday afternoon and everything was open and bustling – even big stores like C&A (the chain survived the retail carnage in France). Perhaps it is down to the large Muslim community there, which so dismays Marine Le Pen.
Does this casual approach to commercial duty matter? If you define 'efficiency' in the UK sense of cheapness, French enterprise is inefficient: over-staffed, greedy for investment, costly to run. But if you define efficiency as something that generally works well and serves the wishes of its customers without treating staff as wage-slaves, then it fits the bill. Can it maintain its lax ways if a new European recession descends? Scottish Review
will be watching to see. We never close.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster