Maytime Mayhem: the eye of the French working cyclone

By: Joanna Munro

It is May. We’re in France. I have a job. So does my husband. My kids go to school and don’t play truant. So why are we all at home on a week day? Because it’s a bank holiday. Again.

I never thought I needed regularity, with the exception of strictly personal and functional phenomena that we won’t go into here. I pretty much go with the flow - or so I thought, until I discovered how the French organise their working schedules in May. Saying that you work in France during the month of May is really a contradiction in terms: my children’s school bags will have crossed the threshold seven times in the space of twenty days. May is a vortex of never-ending long weekends; the Bermuda Triangle of the Gallic working schedule. Trying to work in the bedlam produced by bored children and a husband running riot with his faithful pals Black & Decker is about as easy as achieving a state of transcendental meditation in a Marseillais nightclub. For an entire month, I stumble from one wrecked working week to another with no idea of who is doing what in terms of work, school or recreational activities.

I discovered why the French don’t work much in May when I turned up at school one sunny day in 1989, fresh-faced and enthusiastic with my bagful of English lessons to titillate the learning buds of my students, and discovered the gate closed and the playground deserted. I asked a mother who was passing by if there had been a bomb scare. She blinked in surprise. “Non, it’s a jour férié!”, she said. At the end of the month, I had practically not set foot in the school, and had been paid normally. I was perplexed.

Indeed, the French appear to work so little in May that I now almost expect to see their GDP digging a tunnel underneath the chart of annual French economic progression on the fifth month of every year, armed with little more than naïve optimism and a teaspoon. A TV newsreader gravely announced a week ago that France has gone into recession this month. I turned to my tutting French husband and asked him what else France expected with half the population on extended weekends for most of the month.

An unemployed person’s estate
An unemployed person’s estate

A jour férié is basically a bank holiday. My far-distant memories of bank holidays in Perfide Albion are simple: add a Monday to the first weekend in May, and hey presto, you get the Mayday bank holiday. In my case, it was dedicated to dancing round the Maypole and eating hot, peppery pasties and vinegary chips out of newspaper on windblown Cornish beaches. That was the definition of a bank holiday for me: three days, and back to work.

The French jour férié is a whole different matter. Forget our measly 8 dates in England; after investigation, I ended up with an impressive list of eleven official days off. There is of course the sacrosanct Labour Day on the first of May. Next there are the celebrations of the 14th of July, Christmas Day and the New Year, and the two war commemorations. Finally you add a good dose of religious days to the equation. The French don’t come across as a particularly pious nation, and are not what they themselves unambiguously refer to as “font frogs”. Yet they have no qualms about taking these particular days off, even if Mr Tout le monde no longer parades the Virgin Mary through the village on the 15th of August with the appropriate sanctimonious bells and whistles the original tradition requires. Admittedly, the deal doesn’t sound like much fun in a provençal heat wave, and that’s presumably why the French traditionally use this day to fester in the legendary traffic jams on the aptly named “sunshine motorway”, or lap up the sun on the nearest beach instead. In short, the reason behind the majority of these days off has disappeared, but the jour férié is here to stay.

The French carefully organise their filofaxes around these precious days, which are generally paid holidays by the employers, in a bid to get the most time off work with the lowest possible investment of their rights to holiday. It is an art. There are even websites dedicated to the dates of bank holidays for the three years to come.

There were four of these eleven little gems in May this year, splattered haphazardly across my kitchen calendar like tomato sauce stains on a two-year-old’s T-shirt. The Easter holiday break had already trailed into the first week of May. When I saw this organisational minefield on my timetable, I ground my teeth in despair.

Ok, I hear you say, four days off work or school is not really a big deal. In fact, it’s very generous and as such should definitely not be sniffed at. I agree. However, I’m now going to ask you to bring out the French person in you. Let’s get dressed up to play the role. We’ll go for the old stereotype to get you in the mood: Put on your virtual beret, and string those onions and garlic heads around your shoulders so that they line up nicely with your stripy Breton sweater. Get on your bike, and twiddle that handle-bar moustache… Ok. You’re ready. (You don’t look like a real French person today, but who cares.) Now stop playing with that baguette, and let’s apply some French logic to long weekends and discover the tried and tested Gallic method for magically transforming them into holidays.

To do so you need two essential tools: the infamous French “pont”, and the OFC (Obvious French Conclusion). No need for a translating degree to know that “pont” means “bridge”. In any other country, a bridge is a construction spanning the gap between two river banks. Think Eiffel, think Brunel. Now let’s go all philosophical and abstract. In France, a bridge can also span a bank holiday. Let’s work on your example. Look on your calendar. The 8th of May is a day off work to celebrate VE day. The next day is also a day off - this time for religious reasons, to celebrate Jesus’ Ascension. Your boss duly gives you your official days off to visit and thank WW2 veteran soldiers in old people’s homes on Wednesday, then go to church to celebrate the fact that J.C’s private lift to the pearly gates worked without any hitches on Thursday. Apart from the obvious question of whether or not you will use these days for the purposes for which they were originally intended, the million dollar question is….. Will you go to work on Friday?

You promptly scratch your virtual beret-clad head and draw Obvious French Conclusion number one. You reply, “Well…. probably not…. because if I take just one day from my treasure trove of holiday dues, I’ll get a “weekend” from Tuesday night right through to Monday morning.” Congratulations; you have just become French. You have constructed a bridge in record time. By spanning over Friday, you have instantly created yourself a five-day holiday. In fact, I suspect that many of you have already become caught up in French logic and are now peddling enthusiastically down the road of French savoir faire several miles ahead of me on your way to Obvious French Conclusion number two: if you take two more days, you get an entire week off work. Although the French still modestly call this a bridge, I stare at them with my favourite disapproving look, and inform them that as their bridge has gained Golden Gate proportions, it could be now technically be termed a viaduct. Now repeat this scenario throughout the month of May, and you get more holiday than work. Recreate this phenomenon across the French economy for an entire month, and weep.

So let’s have a virtual Pastis together and admire your capacity to adapt to French working climes as the sun prepares to set on a whole month of productivity. When you put your glass down, grab your diary and get your head around the fact that there is another jour férié on the horizon, on Monday the 20th May. I can see OFC number 3 creeping up on you already, and I can hear you muttering, “Why not take off the five more days, and go back to work on the 21st?” Recession? What recession? Don’t worry, I’m sure that somebody is working. Somewhere…..

About the author

Expat Blog ListingJoanna Munro is a British expat living in France. Blog description: English humour from a British mother of three lost somewhere in the depths of the Hérault valley. Village life, French tax forms, the paradox of the French and fast food, people-spotting on the beach, and much more.
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Contest Comments » There are 15 comments

Elena Djelil wrote 10 years ago:

Well written with much needed humour & so true!! Add in the 2 to 3 hour lunch breaks, the no Sunday working and the days off for the strikes which loom up for any little gripe and you wonder the country survives at all!! Good luck MM - you deserve to win!

Tric Kearney wrote 10 years ago:

Great piece. Most enjoyable, yet very informative. Having read it I can come to only one conclusion, I am living in the wrong country!

Tracey wrote 10 years ago:

I love the way you write about simple every day life with such panache and humour! You never fail to leave me chuckling at my computer screen! Everything that can be crossed is crossed for you to win... Good luck!

Katt wrote 10 years ago:

Wonderfully written as EVER ! Do you have a spare bedroom? I will pay :) Your style is personal and engaging and creates anticipation for the ending (Which I really didn't want to end) I kept picturing myself there! I worked 69 hours last week and took one week vacation. ENJOY YOURSELF JOANNA!

Gillian Duncan wrote 10 years ago:

Good point well made! If I was to cross that bridge or create that viaduct based on the Scottish holidays i'd never be at work and might seriously need to rethink my nationality. Only educational establishments are busy in May in any country and by 'establishments' I mean admin ... its certainly not the students!! This little ditty for the win.

Duncan Robertson wrote 10 years ago:

I want to go live and work in France - well, in May anyway ! :-)

Laura wrote 10 years ago:

Wish I had your problem although its a wonder the country keeps going

A gem! Expressed with great humour (through gritted teeth!).

Sarah wrote 10 years ago:

Yes, it's wonderful when you're a menial employee. All those paid days off, for some it's simply revving us up for the summer holidays. Brilliantly written as ever, Joanna, and I love the OFC - I'm sure there must be a whole list of them...

Perpetua wrote 10 years ago:

And somehow they seem to get most of August off too. :-) A splendidly wry look at the mores and customs of your adopted country, MM. As a now retired but time-served working mother, I feel for you in the chaos that is May in France.

Tina wrote 10 years ago:

The reality and humor of living cross culturally laced with a real life story. You are a literary comedian. Always love reading about your life. Good luck! you should win!

Leisha wrote 10 years ago:

A wonderful read! Humorous AND informative! You deserve to win!

Allesklar wrote 10 years ago:

The French are, of course, simply copying the unassailable logic of the Australian "working holiday" model, also known as the "holiday". Put yourself in the boss's shoes. With public holidays falling on the Wednesday and Thursday, do you really want to pay your workforce to come and "work" on the Friday, when there will be no customers and nothing to do, because the entire rest of the nation will be sensibly taking the day off? What's more, to get the extra day off, they've had to trade in one of their days from the pre-Christmas rush, which is when you really want people at work. Expand this logic slightly, and you can, as you observe, have your entire workforce absent for the whole of the useless month of May. And what's more - you get all the hours back in December without even having to pay penalty rates. Even better, when they do get back to work, they're all so rotten guilty that they work like slaves for a couple of months, especially if you drop hints such as "Due to our low productivity in May, we may have to lay someone off..." it is however, a bit upsetting, that all these ideas were first thought of and put into practice in our sunny antipodean paradise, and are therefore our intellectual property. But we haven't had so much as a 'Thankyou' from Petain, de Gaulle, or any of the others who've followed since...

CMT wrote 10 years ago:

Lovely, humorous piece. As a mom, wife, household organizer, I could so picture myself as I read your tale; smack dab in the chaos of trying to figure out "what are we going to dooooo with these days off?" Your post led me to your blog, and I'm hooked!

M wrote 10 years ago:

Another blog post that had me chuckling. I suspect pastis is probably what keeps the country going...

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