” J’étais heureuse de retrouver la maison d’Aix, j’avais l’impression de me retrouver en famille […] J’adorais ces vacances de farniente où chacun vivait à son rythme: sport, marché, sieste, piscine, lecture, sans oublier les apéritifs prolongés et les longues soirées à refaire le monde. J’étais attachée à ces parenthèses de vie au cours desquelles je me sentais protégée, loin de toute pression et gestion.* ” Quand l’imprévu s’en mêle, Alex Riva
Ah l’été! Ah the summer! This blessed moment of the year when France suddenly turns into holiday mode for two whole months, ‘les grandes vacances’! When the only important things are to enjoy the sun, heat, outdoor barbecues and prepare for the long and awaited summer break, les vacances d’été! Having a summer break and enjoying one’s summer is vital for the vast majority of the French and summer holiday expenses will often take precedence over any other expenses.
So you may tell me that other countries go into summer mode and may wonder why France is different. Well, France’s summer mode is on a totally different scale than most countries. You think the UK changes during this period? Have a read at how far the French go and let me know what you think after.
It all started with a strike
Before 1936, paid holidays did not really exist and were the privilege of a chosen few (especially white collars). France was quite late in improving workers’ rights compared to its neighbours. There had been a few attempts from trade unions and regions to improve workers’ conditions but most of them remained very localised or failed. In May 1936, when the ‘Front Populaire’ or ‘People’s Party’ was elected, the French workers saw a way for their conditions to improve. The whole country went on strike and demanded big changes. The government conceded and in June ‘Les Accords de Matignon’ were signed. Blue collars (‘ouvriers’) got a pay rise, a 40-hour working week, the right to be part of a trade union and 2 weeks paid holidays!
France discovered the joys of summer holidays! Bike and camping become the symbols of holidays.
The weekly paid holiday has slowly increased to reach 5 weeks in 1982.
But why such a long period?
Yes summer mode lasts for at least 2 months, and no, the French don’t go on holiday for 2 months!
There are a few reasons for this:
- Summer school holidays last 2 months. Kids break usually end of June, beginning of July and will start again in the last days of August or beginning of September. And as the majority of schools follow the government holiday calendar, all kids break at the same time.
- The weather is obviously a bit factor. From April, temperatures get hotter and hotter, evenings are longer and the sun is shining, meaning people automatically go into an outdoor living, lazier, more convivial mode.
May, the trend setter or how to start your hot weather holiday early
It all starts in May. May is the month with the biggest amount of bank holidays, with 3 in total. You may tell me that 3 days for a whole month is not that bad…. But wait! If the bank holiday falls on a Monday, Thursday, Friday or Tuesday, the French will try to book holidays around it creating a giant week-end. What it called ‘un pont’ (bridge). So if you have 3 bank holidays and create a 4 day week-end each time, how many working days would you have? Well, not much. This is why May is often seen as a very slow month. And from then on, June, July and August will have one bank holiday each, offering more ‘pont’ opportunities. And then it is summer when the vast majority will take a 2-3 weeks break.
August, the holiday month or more commonly called ‘the dead month’
The whole of France starts to slow down from May to reach a pick in August, a month when most companies are shut and the vast majority goes on holiday. For historical reasons, the vast majority of workers (blue collars) used to go on holiday in August and it is often a very hot month, meaning work gets more difficult and everything slows down.
Even if July is still a holiday month when many leave their home, August remains the preferred holiday month.
Here are a few tips and advice when going on holiday during the summer, especially in August:
- Get ready to see a lot of businesses closed and empty villages
- Be prepared for traffic jams and loads of people on the roads, especially on the transition week-end between July and August. Often seen as the worst travelling week-end of the year
- Brace yourself for even more people on the beach and in the touristic areas! Sometimes, it feels like the whole of France has migrated to holiday places and the South of France.
- And if you are commonly doing businesses with France, get ready for The August break because nothing will be done, and you should plan accordingly!
Summer or the joys of outdoor living
One of the things that most French people living in the UK miss is the eating and drinking outside. Wherever you go in France, as soon as the weather is nice, you will see people enjoying a drink or a meal outside or ‘à la terrasse d’un café ou d’un restaurant’. Eating outside, even at home is a must. It embodies the laziness, relaxing, convivial and social aspects of summer.
Every moment of the day is good to eat outside, breakfast, lunch or diner. The at home version of this outdoor living is the barbecue. The true symbol of summer and friends/family gatherings.
Not only is food taken outside, but life seems to move outside the home. This is especially true in the hotter parts of France. Due to the weather and temperatures, windows and doors are open meaning you become way closer to your neighbour all of a sudden! This changes the way you see and do things. And when this weather permitting outdoor style of living lasts for 3, 4, sometimes 6 months, it becomes your way of life.
Summer mode for all
The whole of France turns into summer mode from May onwards. Slowly to begin with to reach a full transformation in July and August.
One of the most important program is the weather forecast, ‘la météo’. What will the weather be tomorrow? Who will have the joy of having sun and good temperatures? Weather becomes a big topic!
Then TV and radio programs move to summer mode in July. All changes.
- The news focus more on holiday, less traumatic events
- TVs will broadcast the good old movies seen hundred of times and will show the new summer programs, such a ‘Fort Boyard’ (Crystal Maze).
- There are 3 different forecast programs, the normal weather, the beach forecast and the road traffic forecast (by ‘Bison Futé’ who will use a green , orange, red, black colour scheme to forecast the road traffic)
- The Tour de France will inevitably start the summer holiday and be followed by millions. A wonderful way to discover France and its treasures.
- Radios will broadscast more summer type songs and the unavoidable summer tube.
- Some programmes have now disappeared but are still vivid in memories such as the TV summer sagas usually following the life of a family all throughout the summer or Intervilles getting towns competing in silly games.
Summer holiday or the art of bringing your home with you.
The vast majority of French people will stay in France for the summer holiday, even if a few more are now going abroad (30% will choose to stay outside the ‘Hexagone’, France). Holiday clubs, all inclusive such as Club Med with loads of activities and dancing will be a preferred abroad choice.
For those staying in France, a lot will go to friends and family or in their holiday home. Others will choose self-catering options such as ‘gîtes’ or camping. Overall, the French choose a holiday destination where they can replicate home, bringing their own suff. A bit like a snail carrying its own home!
There is a real love story between the French and camping. The symbol of outdoor living, social life, get together, good times, pétanque and pastis. This love affair has been very well described in the comedy ‘Camping’.
Summer or the opportunity to discover France and its beauties
The summer holiday is the opportunity for the French to discover their country, its beauties and treasures . Every single region, towns, villages will put in place events, festivals, touristic attractions, markets to showcase their treasures and local products. Media will usually relay this with daily or weekly regional programs.
It is also the opportunity for the French to slow down and go back to his/her manual, farming, earth roots. Wood houses, retreats, nude camping sites, nature trail walks have never been more popular.
Sun, fun and protection
Summer might be a time to enjoy the outdoor, the sun and heat but not without protection. The French are extremely big in protecting oneself against the damage of sun and heat. And there are three major reasons for this:
- 2003 heatwave, when temperatures rised above 40c for weeks. It was the first time France had seen extreme temperatures like that for so long. And it was not prepared at all. thousands of old people died and the country was left traumatised. Since then, huge education campaigns are launched at each heatwave to insure people know what to do and how to behave.
- The sun is getting worse, bathing in the sun covered in oil is not an option anymore. Sun cream, sunglasses, hats, parasols are out as soon as there is sun. For children, suncream, sunglasses, hats and UV filtered t-shirts are a much.
- Fires strike every year, especially in the South East of France and 80% of them could have been avoided. So to avoid this, every media will always relay the same information: ‘when you go out and you are close to a forest, do not throw away cigarette buts, leave glass containers or lit up fires in unauthorised areas (even a small controlled barbecue) and no diy work that could cause sparks.
If you want to get into French summer mode here are a few things you can watch, listen to
TV programs / movies
The summer sagas
Les vacances de M Hulot
*I was happy to come back to the house in Aix, I had the feeling to be back in my family […] I loved these chilled holidays when everyone was living at their own rhythm : sport, market, nap, swimming pool, reading, without forgetting the lengthened aperitif times and long evening chats. I needed these life moments into brackets where I felt protected, far from all stress and daily life routine.