John Laughland

Vive les vacances!

The French obsession with getting away

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‘Vous partez?’ ‘Vous partez un petit peu?’ ‘Quand est-ce que vous partez?’ Since early June, Parisians have been asking and answering these questions remorselessly, their minds fixed on holidays and nothing else. Since early July, the capital has been emptying out dramatically: the markets are deserted, shops are boarded up, food supplies even run down. Children vanish as mothers take them to the country or send them on Scout camp, leaving the fathers to join the family when the office permits. The city will slow down even further in August, so much so that it does not even charge for street parking during that languid month. Given that September is defined by the bustle required to catch up after a two-month break, it is safe to say that the pre-, post- and holiday period in France lasts for one third of the year.

Actually it lasts for longer. The main function of the famous French summer break is to allow people to recover from the stress of planning all the other holidays which punctuate the calendar. There are school vacations every six weeks; there are two public holidays in November; there is Christmas, of course, which, as in Britain, is conjugated with New Year to make a good week or more. Then come the skiing holidays in February, when it is impossible to book a train seat to the mountains because the exodus is so intense. Before you know it, spring has arrived, and the period from late April to early June is a gruyère with public holidays at Easter, school Easter holidays (not necessarily at the same time), 1 May (Labour Day), 8 May (Victory Day), Ascension and Pentecost. If one of these public holidays falls on a weekday then people often ‘make the bridge’ between it and the nearest weekend, and in May the bridge can turn into a viaduct. Once the last of these short spring breaks is past, there is hardly time to draw breath before it is time to start over again and plan the summer break.

However, ‘planning’ is often not the right word. Many French holidays are, to British tastes, shockingly routine. It may be a class thing, but nearly everyone we know has a place in the country; some have several. As a result, for very large numbers of French people, the summer holiday is not an annual scramble to find the right package to Greece or Spain but instead the very opposite: year in, year out, they return to the same part of the country, like migrating birds, only seldom exploring other parts of their vast national territory and even less frequently leaving it.

This faithfulness to the part of the country one is from — what is called ‘mon pays’, ‘my country’ — continues to define French national identity even in the industrial or post-industrial age. The regions are present in the capital, to be sure, in the form of butchers who sell beef that comes only from a particular part of the country, or in the form of restaurants offering regional cuisine. But by returning to their ‘home country’ at least once a year, Parisians, too, doggedly cultivate the fiction that they are really from there and not from where they actually live. When a lady from Nice who lives in Paris learned I was English, she said, ‘Oh, so we are all defectors, then’, as if a Niçoise were as foreign as a Briton.

Such muscular regionalism can be quite demanding. One fellow I know is so determined to remain Auvergnat while living in Paris that he drives five hours every weekend to his mountain fastness, and then five hours back again on Sunday evening. When new number plates were introduced two years ago which allowed people to choose the number indicating their supposed département of origin, the regional ones quickly ran out. Some smart friends of mine who are ‘Basque’ and ‘Catalan’ (they live round the corner from us in Paris) were very miffed when they had to settle for a suburban plate.

The truth is that it is a bit naff to say that you are from Paris and much better to be from Normandy, Brittany, Lorraine or wherever. Traditional and family links to these regions are stronger than the desire to explore abroad or even other parts of France, and people return to them, sometimes with resignation, when in fact they would really rather be somewhere else. A young couple we know are sick of spending their summer holidays in the rain in Normandy; but, as far as I know, they are there now.

This annual outflow of inhabitants of the capital to the provinces goes some way to explaining how France works. France is the largest country in Europe, with huge empty spaces, very few large provincial towns and an intensely cramped capital city. Everything is concentrated in Paris but the provinces survive at least in part thanks to the migration of Parisians to them. Like a great heart which pumps blood around the body, the circulation of city dwellers to the countryside and back again connects the country’s heart to its limbs and vice versa. It is precisely because this mechanism works at very specific times that the arteries — the railways and motorways — function at very full capacity at specific times of the year.

Property explains a lot. France has the highest rate of second-home ownership in the world. Often these properties are inherited and shared with siblings or cousins, and not very well kept up as a result, such as the magnificent pastiche Scottish château we were invited to in Languedoc at the beginning of July, an extraordinary house which still bore significant traces of the grandparents who had evidently lived until the 1950s and whose possessions their descendants had largely left in situ.

More important, though, is the fact that, unconsciously, France remains a country in which the civilised tradition of leisure is still actively cultivated. The French are not lazy: people work very hard when they have to. But since leisure is, in fact, the precondition for civilisation, they continue to understand that it constitutes the very point of life.