Vive les vacances

congésOverheard snippet of conversation amongst female coworkers, roughly translated:

“I really need some.”

“Me too. It’s been way too long.”

“How long’s it been?”

“Months. Not since the winter and that was far too short.”

“If I don’t get some soon, I’m gonna die.”

I was red-faced before I figured out what they were talking about. It’s the one thing the French absolutely cannot live without: holidays.

Since the law was first passed in 1936 granting every French worker the right to les congés payés, the annual paid vacation has been inscribed in the culture of this country. Since then it has mushroomed from two to five weeks.

There are two major categories of holidays: les petites vacances (spring, fall and winter breaks) and les grandes vacances, that lovely stretch of two long summer months. They all march to the rhythm of the school calendar. But whether or not they have school-age children, and whatever their other hobbies (travel, skiing or other sports), everyone in France, and I do mean everyone, takes a summer vacation.

I love the fact that France has charitable organizations devoted to ensuring that underprivileged children get a summer holiday (“Pour ceux qui ne peuvent partir”). And that there are even specific words for those who take their holidays in July (les juilletistes) or August (les aoûtiens).

Although some go to the mountains for fresh air and others go north and west to the beaches in Normandy, Brittany and the Atlantic coast, most of France heads south.

I visualize this as a sort of tipping of the hour glass: come July 14th, the country gets tipped over and almost all of the sand goes to the bottom. Then, around August 15th, it flips back again.

On the first weekend after Bastille Day you only have to turn on the TV or radio to hear the breaking news: the highways and byways are ‘noir’ (literally ‘black’ but actually meaning packed) as tourists take to the road and converge on France from all over Europe. All news channels will talk about little other than the major traffic jams and report double-than-average travel times from Paris to parts south. La canicule (the heatwave) and la météo des plages (beach weather report) are the only kind of news the French want to hear about for the next month.

When I got my first job in France and discovered I would immediately qualify for five weeks of annual paid vacation, I was thrilled. Compared to the paltry two weeks you get as statutory holiday in Canada, this was manna from the gods. But then I noticed how quickly it went. A week at Christmas, another for a ski break in March…if I wasn’t careful to keep it to two weeks in summer, there wouldn’t be much left.

But two weeks in the summer was too short, as one of my colleagues explained:

“The first week, you unwind. The last week, you’re already thinking about going back to work. So you really need three weeks in order to have a least one week in the middle where you really relax.”

I have to admit, the French are good at this.

As for me, I am a devout aoûtienne. But we’re only taking two weeks this summer. There’s just too many other times of year when I need a vacation.

Bonnes vacances to all who are lucky enough to enjoy some!


  1. MELewis · July 9, 2015

    Reblogged this on FranceSays and commented:

    This post from the early days of my blog is as true as ever. Especially as France seems to be experiencing a year of heatwave. Bonnes vacances!

  2. davidprosser · July 9, 2015

    Over here when I started work it seemed the standard was 15 days paid leave and then you earned more for time served. When I finished I was on 31 days which was 6 weeks and a day, plus because I was on flexi time, I could earn another day every 4 weeks. My delight was in adding a Friday to the weekend and having as many long weekends as possible and still save the basic 15 days to take in weeks.
    Now I don’t work I miss my long weekends even though I have them every week anyway.
    xxx Massive Hugs Mel xxx

    • MELewis · July 9, 2015

      I like the idea of working longer in order to ‘earn’ extra days….whereas everyone in France starts out with the same 5-6 weeks (depending on the employer). But David, to say you don’t work is misleading – for someone who is retired, you work harder than most! 😉 Big bises! xx

  3. Osyth · July 9, 2015

    I read in La Montagne two days ago that one in two French people are currently on holiday …. this would be impossible to imagine anywhere else in the world but here it is normale! I come from the same culture as David, above …. it takes a little getting used to 😀

    • MELewis · July 9, 2015

      And to think, probably August will be worse. This is why the rest of the year is so crazy…when you add up all the holidays plus the month of May long weekends, you have to squeeze 12 months into 9! But I suppose there are worse things to have to get used to.

      • Osyth · July 9, 2015

        Mercifully I am in England for most of August … if the village gets any busier it will burst!!

  4. emilycommander · July 9, 2015

    As usual the French are entirely right about the three-week thing. What I cannot quite get my head round yet is the fact that, in many companies, a three-week period of leave in August is COMPULSORY…

    • MELewis · July 9, 2015

      Ha, ha…yes, but that is just because there are some rather crafty beggars who like to work in August when business is very slow, ie get paid to do nothing. So forcing everyone to take time in August is, strangely, efficient.

  5. Suzanne et Pierre · July 9, 2015

    Great post and so very true (in 2013 as in 2015). I remember wondering while living in Paris why the news bothered sending reporters to do the same piece every year and thinking that they simply should rerun the same report every year as it never changes…It was quite an adjustment for us as we had always favoured taking our vacations off-season but as the whole country seems to shut down in July & August, it was expected that we would take at least a few weeks in the summer. I did hate travelling at the same time as everyone else and I am glad to be back to taking my vacation off seasons!

    • MELewis · July 9, 2015

      I have often had the same thought, Suzanne! Bet you anything there will be yet another ‘reportage’ on Tf1 or France2 about ‘politique sociale des vacances’ – they could literally just rerun last year’s coverage. As for the off-season vacation, we are trying to adapt but I must admit it hard psychologically for me, at least, not to take any time off in July and August. This year we are compromising on early September.

  6. A.PROMPTreply · July 9, 2015

    Wow. I didn’t know this and it sounds so wonderful! Dearly loved your little image of tipping France down and then back up again a month later with the sand running the opposite direction each time! Great visual!

    • MELewis · July 9, 2015

      Merci! So glad it spoke to you. That retro visual also seem to sum up the French on holiday. 😉

  7. coteetcampagne · July 9, 2015

    Yes, “vives les vacances”, when we finish renovating in France we may have a b****y holiday !!
    Sorry, do you detect a hint of bitterness resulting from years spent, hammering, sawing, plastering, painting, sanding, demolishing, rebuilding……………….

    • MELewis · July 9, 2015

      Yes, I do. And you have my complete admiration for doing that. Although I have seen two houses built from the ground up, that is a picnic compared to lovingly renovating something old. Bon courage – and hopefully a holiday some day soon!

      • coteetcampagne · July 9, 2015

        If you are ever in the Languedoc we will do you “mates rates” for a sojourn!

      • MELewis · July 9, 2015

        Good to know….we’re not often in the south of this fair land but it may happen. In which case I’ll be happy to take you up on!

  8. peakperspective · August 2, 2015

    Must schedule vacation. Must schedule time to schedule vacation.

    • MELewis · August 4, 2015

      Nothing like a to-do list to make sure it’s on the radar. Let me know if you need a follow-up reminder!

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