Sunning himself while lying on a bright blue beach towel, Romain Playner looked like any other vacationer on the sands of the south of France. But the unemployed actor wasn't on vacation. In fact, he hadn't even left Paris.
"I just try to pretend I'm on holiday by doing summery things here," Playner said while laying out on a bank of the Seine River. "This is the second year I haven't taken a vacation."
"I'd love to go," he added. "I just don't have the money."
August is the month of vacation for the French, who enjoy an average of seven weeks of paid time off annually. But with unemployment at 10 percent and travel costs rising, nearly 40 percent of the French no longer take an extended trip away from home, a trend threatening the summer ritual that has symbolized the good life the country is known for.
"Holidays have gotten very expensive, and more and more employed people who used to go find that they can't anymore," said Jean Froidure, a tourism expert at the University of Toulouse. He called the trend "very worrisome."
"The vacation is a potent symbol in French society, a visible sign of a certain social standing," Froidure said. "Not going on vacation can cause people to lose confidence not only in their own future, but also in French society in general."
Considered a privilege of the elite for the first half of the 20th century, the vacation was "democratized" during the prolonged economic boom that followed World War II. The number of French who took annual vacations rose continuously in the following decades, growing from an estimated 30 percent of the population in 1950 to more than 70 percent in the early 1980s, Froidure said.
After stagnating for about two decades, these numbers appear to be on the decline. Nearly four out of every 10 French people don't go on vacation at any time of the year -- nearly half of them because they can't afford it, according to a 2004 study by the Tourism Ministry.
The study defined a vacation as spending four or more nights away from home.
All European nations guarantee employees between four and five weeks of paid vacation a year. The United States and Australia are the only industrialized countries without national minimums on the length of vacations, according to the International Labor Organization.
The French average seven weeks of paid vacation a year -- two more than the country's labor laws stipulate. They work an average of 1,441 hours per year, compared with 1,661 hours for the British, and 1,824 for Americans, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports.
Despite the downward trend in vacations, France still all but shuts down in August. In Paris, so many shops, restaurants and pharmacies close that those staying open often put up signs: "We're here in August."
But things are changing. The number of people unable to get away is on the upswing, and worried officials are starting to respond.
For a fourth year, Paris has transformed a two-mile stretch of the right bank of the Seine into a temporary beach, trucking in tons of sand and palm trees and drawing hoards of well-oiled, bikini-clad stay-at-homes.
Last year, a record 3.9 million people -- Parisians and tourists -- visited the riverside beach.