On and Off (But Especially Off) the Job: Holidays in France
- Published on Monday, 21 May 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Nice Lack of Work If
You Can Get It...
The Pont de Bercy in Paris: France must be the only country in the world where they manage to get bridges built without working on bridges.
This is a very unusual week in France. Not because it’s the first full week of the Hollande presidency. Not because the weather is finally starting to resemble springtime. Not because the fountains of Paris are spouting champagne instead of water and nude fashion models are walking around town handing out €500 bills.
All of those things are true, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s an unusual week for this time of year because – oh wow, it seems like forever since this has happened – it has five workdays. In a row!
This is uncommon because May has the highest concentration of holidays of any month in the year. Since I grew up in the United States, where holidays and long weekends are doled out in parsimonious, puritanical dribs and drabs, this seems downright sybaritic to me.
On paper, the United States and France have the same number of national holidays, 11 per year, but in practice the situation is quite different. The vast majority of French workers get all 11 days off, whereas most companies in the United States only close for the six “major” holidays: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. (I’m not counting Easter because it almost always, in my experience, falls on a Sunday).
In France, as in most Western countries, virtually everyone who isn’t employed in public transit or emergency services gets off work on January 1. But the real holiday season here kicks off at Easter. If Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into vinegar at the Bachelor Party at Cana (practice run – he didn’t quite have it down yet and overshot the mark), his last miracle was begetting no fewer than six days off per year for the French workforce.
The Monday after Easter is a national holiday here, and so are Ascension Thursday and Whit (a.k.a. Pentecost) Monday, 40 and 51 days respectively after Bunny Sunday. Christmas is a holiday, of course, which brings JC’s tally up to four, and I’m also counting contributions from his mom and his sanctified posse: August 15 marks the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven (everyone in France was on vacation and missed it when it happened, so they made it a holiday), and November 1 is All Saints’ Day (can’t have a saint without a savior, as P. T. Barnum used to say).
By coincidence, there are two other closely spaced national holidays in France during the post-Lenten loafing season. May 1, Workers’ Day, is a day off for almost everyone, and exactly one week later May 8 is also a fête nationale. In fact, it used to be a holiday in the United States as well: V-E or Victory in Europe Day, marking the liberation of France, the arrival of chewing gum and swing bands, and the reopening of the Tour d’Argent wine cellar. Oh, and the end of World War II.
That brings us up to nine. The two remaining French holidays are also nationalistic in nature: Bastille Day on July 14, commemorating the perfect storming that sparked the French Revolution, and November 11, Armistice Day, solemnizing the end of the other big unpleasantness, whose combatants had the remarkable prescience to call World War I.
So the mellowed-out month of May starts with a holiday, which this year fell on a Tuesday. And that brings us to the bridge. Not the Bercy Viaduct. Not the middle section of “In the Mood.” I mean the French calendar term: whenever a holiday happens to fall on Tuesday or Thursday, it’s a common practice in most French companies to let everyone off for the isolated pre- or post-weekend workday as well. This is called a pont, or “bridge.”
The only traditional “bridge day” in the United States is the Friday after Thanksgiving Thursday, and even then most retail workers don’t have the day off. In fact, many of them have to clock in early: “Black Friday,” as it is called, is traditionally the first day of the Christmas shopping season, when many stores traditionally offer promotional sales, and millions of shoppers traditionally trample each other in a traditional frenzied scramble to get a four-dollar discount on traditional Christmas gifts like pre-ripped jeans and Mortal Kombat 9. Who says Americans have no respect for tradition?
For a French employer, not allowing your staff to take off a pont puts you in a league with Stalin and Caligula. Thus we started May this year with a four-day weekend, followed immediately by another one, because of course May 8 was also a Tuesday.
Ascension Thursday came the week after that (last week), which made three three-day weeks in succession. So when the full workweek started last Monday, it seemed really odd. People were walking around in a daze, wondering how they were ever going to make it to Thursday, let alone the weekend. Fortunately, next Monday, May 28, is Pentecost, so we’ll have a chance to rest up from all the undue exertion.
Just to fill all the extra spare time, I started thinking: besides having twice as many holidays as the United States, France has a nationally mandated 35-hour workweek, a requirement that all salaried employees take five weeks of vacation per year and a standard retirement age of 60. Most Americans work a 40-hour week, get two weeks of annual vacation and retire at 65.
I did, as they say, the math. According to my informal calculations, for someone entering the workforce at age 20, the French system, with five hours less weekly work, three weeks of vacation and five holidays (plus a few ponts) more per year and retirement five years earlier, yields a lifetime total of nearly 9.5 years of additional leisure time.
Then it occurred to me that most Americans get a lunch hour that is, defying all logic, 60 minutes long, whereas many, if not most, French workers take up to 90 minutes for their midday break (as I mentioned in a previous C’est Ironique). That extra half hour, over the course of a career, adds up to just over six months of time off.
So there you have it: the average French person works a full decade less than the average American. This phenomenon has myriad far-reaching social, economic and public health implications that warrant a detailed explanation. I’ll get to it right after my nationally mandated daily nap.
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Reader Panama Red writes:"Mr. Jaggard has been away from Amurrica for too long. He makes a couple of errors in his computation of the time we spend at work. Our lunch hour is not an hour; typically it is a half-hour. We no longer have to wait until we are 65 to retire. Because our standard of living is so high, our healthcare system is so great, and therefore we're dying more slowly than in the past, we're now encouraged to retire at 67.
"It is in the purest sense of self sacrifice that we work so long and so hard... after all, somebody has to take up the slack of the slovenly French, with their short hours, long vacations, red wine and silly loaves of bread. Dang!"
Reader Barney Kirchhoff writes:"An amusing column but wrong on one detail. French retirement age for a full pension is 62. Hollande has pledged to change it back to 60, but I doubt this would last long because of funding problems for an aging population.
"Many people in France, particularly in the private sector, work to age 65. I worked until I was nearly 72."
David Jaggard responds: "Thanks to Messrs. Red and Kirchhoff for those precisions, in particular because they cancel each other out – if American and French workers both retire two years later than posited, my iffy, offhand calculation stands."
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