Until September 2, half the country will be disconnected from work and business.
The long summer vacation – les grands vacances – just started in France. From July 14 (Bastille Day) to September 2, one citizen out of two will be disconnected from work or business ; one out of two will be out of town, if not out of the country. Some people will leave for one week or two, some others for three weeks or more. Many upper middle class or upper class families still stick to a traditional two months pattern : wifes and children start their vacation as early as possible in July, husbands join them for most of August. Middle class families focus on August. Youngsters nomadize on low budget lines throughout France, Europe and even more exotic places, from the Americas to East Asia. The ethnic French working class stays iddle at home or resort to camping. The immigrant working class flies back for Ramadan to the old country (usually North or Subsaharan Africa) where their French income turns them into rich visitors.
Foreigners may wonder how the French do it, especially when an economic tsunami is looming over all of Europe. For the French, however, this is even not an issue : vacation is as sacred to them as Yom Kippur to Jews. Woe to presidents or governmens that fail to understand that. Eight years ago, in 2004, the conservative prime minister Jean-Luc Raffarin attempted to abolish one legal holiday, Pentecost Monday, in May-June, a holiday-saturated season. The Catholic Church did not object (in religious terms, it is Pentecost Sunday only that matters). But the populace did. On the first « working Pentecost Monday », most employees, including civil servants, simply did not show up, and nobody in higher management dared to substract that illegally unworked day from the monthly check. It went on like that year after year ever since then. By now, Pentecost Monday, while not mentioned anymore in the calendar, has been fully restored as a national holiday for all practical matters.
In a similar way, Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing conservative president, blundered when he suggested, in 2007, that people should be allowed « to work more in order to earn more » : the proposal sounded decidedly obscene, and played as such an important role in mobilizing voters against him in 2012.
For centuries, the French worked hard. Peasants had toiled the land from time immemorial. Up to 1918, urban workers were supposed to spend ten hours a day at factories. Even entrepreneurs stayed at the office on Saturdays. Things changed a bit in 1936, the nearest thing to a social-democratic revolution France ever had, when the working week was limited to 40 hours and the working class was entittled, for the first time ever, to two weeks of paid vacation. However, the real break-up took place after WW2, when France – vindicating Mises and Hayek’s wildest predicaments – built up Europe’s most comprehensive and efficient Welfare State and crowned it with the Fifth Republic, a nationalistic and technocratic regime founded in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle. While working class and middle class salaries were kept comparatively low, especially as compared to the United States, social benefits grew inordinately : vacation, in particular, was steadily extended, and working hours reduced.
As of today, French employees are entitled to six weeks of paid vacation per year, in addition to ten legal holidays and, in some occasion, conconmittant extended week-ends ; Civil Service workers (a category that encompasses all national or local government employees) are entittled to seven weeks. In addition, the legal working week is of 35 hours only : a statute introduced by the Lionel Jospin socialist cabinet in the early 2000’s, and piously maintained by the subsequent conservative administrations, in charge from 2002 to 2012. And here is the final stroke : in terms of school holidays, France is split in three completely arbitrary zones with different calendars (not to mention Corsica and the overseas territories). Since parents tend to adjust their own vacation time to their kids free time, companies with branches all over the country must deal with several different vacation peaks instead of just one.
As a result, French work and business life is a rapid and rather confusing succession of idle and overworked periods. It has been estimated that regular, reliable, work schedules can be sustained for five months out of twelve only : which means that the French economy must achieve in five months the best part of what most other advanced economies achieve in ten to eleven months. No wonder France’s work productivity is one of the highest in the world, either per capita or per hour, just behind the United States (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/icp/international-comparisons-of-productivity/2010—first-estimates/stb-icp-sep11.html ). No wonder either French companies have outsourced massively to less vacation oriented countries : France is #2 in FDI abroad, just after the United States (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_FDI_abroad).
One set of French citizens is definitely not going to enjoy the present long vacation and is compelled instead to work day and night : the two hundred people or so who help the newly elected socialist president François Hollande and his senior ministers to finalize their new policies – and draw a budget. The whole package must be delivered by mid-August : shortly before the nation comes back from rest. And it looks very much like mission impossible.
Last June, six weeks after being elected president of France, Hollande won the parliamentary elections as well – by an amazingly large margin. The socialist party alone got 300 seats out of 577 : eleven seats beyond absolute majority. Together with the Green party (17 seats), the Left Front (10 seats) and a few microparties from the overseas territories, it even garners a sum total of 346 left-oriented seats and comes even rather close to a two thirds majority at the National Assembly. The right fell to 226 seats. The far right stormed two seats.
Under the Fifth Republic constitution, the president is either all-powerful with a devoted National Assembly or powerless without one. From now on and for the next five years, Hollande is thus all-powerful : a « monarchic » president, in the grand tradition of Charles de Gaulle. Moreover, he will enjoy complete subversience from the other elected and unelected powers, something de Gaulle could never fully achieve. As of today, the socialist party controls the Senate, Parliament’s Upper House, in addition to the National Assembly. It runs almost all régions (provinces) of France, most départements (counties), and most big cities, including the capital, Paris. Most French representatives at the European parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg are socialists too. And when it comes to the civil society, socialists and other leftwingers dominate – sometime to the point of suffocating them – the academic, mediatic and even religious powers.
For all that, there are too many pyrrhic elements in Hollande’s victory. First and foremost, it rests on shaky fondations in terms of electoral participation. 43 % of the voters abstained in the parliamentary ballot : a very high proportion by French standards. Then, victory depended in many instances on the immigrant or « culturally alien » vote, a worrying development, or on triangular ballots where the far right undercut the right. Thirdly, the more powerful and victorious Hollande may look by now, the more answerable he is going to be in case of error, failure or just shortcoming.
Clearly, Hollande and his closest advisors are aware of that. Their bid, so far, is to distance themselves from their quasi-utopian electoral platform and reconcile with the real world – in such a smooth and gradual and « honest » way that voters will not get angry.
To that effect, Hollande systematically « doubled » many of his cabinet ministers : while the radical Guyanese Christiane Taubira has been put in charge of the Ministry of Justice, the Spanish-born Manuel Valls, usually described as more rightwing than socialist, heads the Minister of the Interior (and of the Police) ; while Arnaud Montebourg, the leader of the socialist party’s left wing, runs a surrealistic new Ministry of Productive Recovery, Pierre Moscovici, as Minister of Economy and Finance, insists on the orthodox policies put forward by his mentor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, at IMF ; while Laurent Fabius, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, picked up an Arabist as chief of staff, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Minister of Defense, is seen as staunchly pro-American and pro-Nato. But will the good guys actually prevail in the end of the day ?
We will have a clue when the long vacation is over.
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think-thank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.
© Michel Gurfinkiel & PJMedia, 2012