PARIS — Hot, still, silent. Welcome to Paris in August: one of Europe’s largest cities suddenly transformed into an elegant ghost town. Good luck, as a reporter, tracking any Parisian down.
At certain hours of the day, traffic slows to a trickle on the city’s grand Haussmannian boulevards. Handwritten signs in the windows of neighborhood bistros and boulangeries ask you — usually politely — to come back in September. A sense of languor pervades: a sluggish Seine, sculpted chestnut trees billowing in the breeze and noticeably fewer people.
In a love song from the 1960s, Charles Aznavour, the French Frank Sinatra, put it this way: “Every street, every stone / seems to be only for us / we’re alone on the earth / in Paris, in the month of August.” So it remains.
August here is a phenomenon as French as they come. Employees in France are entitled to five weeks of paid vacation every year, more than in other European nations. Sometimes the French get even longer if they opt to work more than the standard 35 hours a week. This is why — and how — certain French restaurants, shops and small businesses can close for essentially one month of the fiscal year, a reality that never fails to mystify Americans.
But France is not the United States, and here, vacation is not a privilege. It is a right.
The notion dates back to the heady days of the Popular Front, the short-lived leftist coalition that ran France from 1936 to 1938. What that government lacked in organization it channeled into an ambitious program of labor reforms, including guaranteed paid time off for all French workers. “It was done in the atmosphere of a social conquest, in pursuit of equality,” said Alain Bergounioux, a prominent historian of France’s Socialist party and a former government adviser.
The Popular Front may not have lasted long in power, but some of its reforms ultimately served as templates for the new government France would devise in the aftermath of World War II. Guaranteed vacation time has been a constant ever since. While this generous amount of time off was intended to encourage workers and employees to develop their lives outside their jobs, Bergounioux insists that vacation is also one of France’s most important means of combating social and economic inequality.
As he put it: “In France — even if certain inequalities are obviously visible — we ultimately live in an environment geared toward equality, and considering vacation as a ‘right’ is part of that. This is very different than American culture.”
Critics often say that France’s famous vacation time means different things to different people. Not everyone, after all, can spend weeks on end at a luxurious villa on the Côte d’Azur or on the cool and craggy coastline of Brittany. Truth be told, Paris feels like a ghost town only within the “Périphérique” road that rings around the center of the city. In August as at any other time of year, the capital’s suburbs are packed with people, many in isolated immigrant communities, who cannot afford to go on vacation.
Regardless of whether they travel, Bergounioux said, all French employees are still ultimately entitled to the time off. What they are able to do with it is a different discussion, he said.
In any case, things could not be more different for their American counterparts. The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not require employers to authorize paid vacation. Average American workers end up with about two weeks off a year in total, but that is a perk. Because time off in America is a gift to be given instead of a requirement to observe, some employers may feel no need.
A study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that approximately 25 percent of American private sector employers do not receive any paid vacation time in a given year.
In France this year, there is the suspicion that this arrangement will not last — or at least that August in France may soon look different. Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, ran on lofty promises to overhaul the labor market to stimulate economic growth. Among his many goals is “returning flexibility” to companies and, in general, giving employers greater power in negotiating conditions directly with their employees. When Macron announces the specifics of his proposal, as expected in late September, the fabric of the French welfare state could drastically change.
For now, however, there is still a month of long afternoons of sitting on cafe terraces and daydreaming. As Victor Hugo observed in “Les Misérables,” his iconic 19th-century novel: “To err is human. To loaf is Parisian.”
In that sense, August may be the most Parisian month of all — even in the absence of Parisians.