Thursday, the feast day of the Ascension, was a public holiday (un jour férié) in France. I’m half-glad, half-disappointed to see that here, as in the UK, most people don’t quite know what to do on these days. This is even more true at present, when everyday life for many of us has a ‘permanent bank holiday’ feel to it. In Poitiers, shops and most restaurants and places of entertainment don’t open on public holidays. You can’t currently invite people around to share some charred burgers and sausages, so generally the wisest thing to do is stay indoors and read or watch TV.
We have eleven public holidays in France, three more than in the UK. Neither Good Friday nor Boxing Day are holidays here, but we celebrate Victory in Europe Day (May 8th), Armistice Day (November 11th), and Bastille Day (July 14th). The other holidays are all religious: the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, both movable and dependent on Easter, the Assumption (August 15th), and All Saints’ Day (November 1st).
In the UK, the late Spring Bank Holiday broadly equates to Pentecost, as it used to be the Monday after Whit Sunday but is now fixed as the last Monday in May. The UK August Bank Holiday has no religious antecedent, It was introduced by the Banking Act of 1871, a piece of legislation championed by Sir John Lubbock, a member of Parliament and a social reformer. One of his intentions was that bank staff should have time off to play and watch cricket, which seems fair enough to me. For a while, these Bank Holidays were called St Lubbock’s days and, by and large, Lubbock does seem to have been a very decent sort of chap; he studied ants and tried to teach his poodle to read.
It’s perhaps odd that France, officially a secular country, has the extra religious holidays, although I have heard profoundly atheist trade unionists getting quite misty-eyed when defending the right of their fellow workers to follow their religious beliefs. Of course, if this means that, despite being non-believers, they too (malheureusement) have to take a day off work, then so be it.
A major difference between the UK and France is that, in the former, Bank Holidays are usually fixed on a Monday but in the latter they can be on any day of the week. This means that if they land at the weekend many workers don’t see much benefit. On the other hand, if they land on a Thursday or a Tuesday, then one can faire le pont: take the intervening Friday or Monday off and have a five-day-long break. In some years, this can be exploited very effectively, and a recent newspaper article showed that this year twenty-five days of annual leave could yield sixty days en vacance.
In both countries, public holidays are, from time to time, the subject of political debate. In the UK, the Early May Bank Holiday was introduced in 1978 by the then employment secretary Michael Foot, before he went on to be leader of the Labour Party. It’s never been popular with many Tories, the idea of ‘a workers’ day’ being seen as subversive if not downright revolutionary. There are regular rumblings about replacing it with either Trafalgar Day on October 21st or Waterloo Day on June 18th (both of which would, I’m sure, go down really well here in France). In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Jeremy Corbyn proposed four new bank holidays on the four national saints’ days. Sadly, as with his monorail to the moon and free beer for the over-fifties, the proposal did not prove to be an electoral game-changer.
From time to time here in France, MEDEF, the major employers’ federation, pushes to make public holidays a fixed attachment to the weekend, as in the UK, to remove the temptation to faire le pont, though I don’t see how that would make much difference to overall productivity. More significantly, MEDEF is also pushing for the gradual elimination of ‘one or two’ public holidays. They currently have Ascension Day in their sights, pointing out that May already has two fixed holidays and that both Ascension and Pentecost can also fall within the month. They point approvingly to the UK’s eight holidays and Germany’s nine, and argue that the elimination of one holiday is equal to a gain of 0.9% of GDP. At one point, President Macron seemed receptive to this idea, but he has noticeably backtracked on it recently.
Some changes have been made over the years. VE day, inaugurated as a public holiday in 1953, was downgraded to a day of commemoration by de Gaulle in 1959. Giscard d’Estaing went further in 1978 and abolished the commemoration of the Allied victory, instead declaring May 9th as a day of commemoration of the 1950 Robert Schuman speech that led to the foundation of the European Union. One of Mitterrand’s first acts on becoming President in 1981 was to reinstate the original May 8th holiday.
More recently, the Pentecost holiday has been the object of some controversy. This dates back to 2003, when some 15,000 elderly French people died during a summer-long heatwave. In an attempt to improve care for the aged, the Chirac government declared that, from 2005, Pentecost would no longer be one of France’s eleven annual public holidays. Instead, employees would go to work as normal but they would not earn anything, their wages being handed over to a fund that would be spent on care for the elderly and disabled. The day was to be known as Solidarity Day. The move proved deeply unpopular and was denounced as the imposition of a salary tax. Pentecost Monday became a public holiday again in 2008, with the Sarkozy government introducing other fiscal measures to raise money to support the elderly and persons with disabilities.
Whilst the objection to Solidarity Day might seem an indication of mean-spiritedness on the part of the general populace, it’s fair to say that the deaths in 2003 were not caused by any lack of funds. It’s possible, too, that people might be a little uneasy about being reminded of those whose deaths started the controversy. As the ever-succinct Madame S. puts it, ‘they died because their families all buggered off to Corsica on holiday’.