A Public Day of (b)Re(a)st

It’s All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’ Day as it is also referred to) – And what is that? I hear you ask – well it’s the feast of all the saints – a chance for them to hang up their halos and have a party.

The word « saint » in French,  is written the same as in English, however it is pronounced« san  (with as little stress as possible on the N). The French word for breast (of the female variety) is written « sein », but also pronounced « san » Whether you are talking about saints or breasts is obviously clear from the context of the conversation – unless you are talking about saints with breasts or Saint Agatha who is the patron saint of breasts. Like all early Christian saints, she met a very nasty end – refusing to renounce her Christianity, she was imprisoned in a brothel before being stretched on a rack, burned to death with hot irons and having her breasts cut off. All this was back in AD251 (oh those nasty Romans) On a serious note; St Agatha is used as a symbol by many breast cancer charities.

All Saints Day in French is « le Toussaint  pronounced toosan. BUT (and if you have so far followed this confused discourse), Toussaint – as it is pronounced could also be translated as « All Breasts » so today is all breasts day, which is quite appropriate if you made a complete tit of yourself at a Halloween party.

Be it for saints or breasts, today is a national public holiday in France, meaning that we get the day off work, which seems a bit thick, because it is Saturday. Welcome to France where we get the public holiday on the day that it falls. This is all right if most public holidays fall on week days, but with curious calendar shifts, you get those years when an awful lot of public holidays can fall on weekends. Tradition dictates that everything is closed on a public holiday because we all have the day off.

Imagine if you can a public holiday on a Saturday – the biggest shopping day of the week where all the shops are closed. That’s bad for business, which is why, over the past few years, more and more shops have seen fit to open on all public holidays, turning a once symbolic day of rest into a mega shopping day. Yes, the French are now like everyone else, public holidays are shopping days.

Generally though, in these hard economic times, should there be a total economic shutdown on public holidays? There are those in business quarters arguing for the scrapping of a number of public holidays. For sure we won’t be working on Christmas day, but what about those other days? Is it really necessary to have a May 8th public holiday to celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany? Do we really need a November 11th public holiday to mark Armistice Day? Perhaps these days are importance for a collective national remembrance? However do we really need a public holiday on Ascension Day? (normally the last Thursday in May) Is it important to keep Easter Monday? What about that most useless of public holidays, Assumption Day which falls on August 15th – right in the middle of the long summer vacation – a day off when you are already on holiday. For sure there will be howls of protest if we abolish any of those public holidays which enable the French to take a long weekend and equally there will be screams of republican indignation if there are any moves to scrap Bastille Day (July 14th).

Public holidays that make a long weekend – welcome to the very French practise of the « bridging day ». If a public holiday is scheduled to fall on a Thursday, a lot of workers will use a day of their annual leave as a bridging day. They will take the Friday off so as to make a long weekend – Wednesday night thru Monday morning. Nowadays though, the long weekend can be even longer.   Roughly ten years ago, the Secretary of state for Employment in the socialist government of the time – a certain Martine Aubry, introduced the 35-hour working week. The idea was simple enough. If we all worked less, employers would be forced to take on more workers to make up for the lost hours. If everyone in the factory is only doing 35 hours work where they used to do 40, then more workers will have to be taken on to make up for the shortfall. Well it was good in principle, except it didn’t work. Many workers continued to work 40 – the new statutory 35 hours paid at the going rate and the extra 5 hours paid as overtime or given as time off in lieu. Well the result was that millions of French workers found themselves paid with time off in lieu, roughly half a day a week over the whole year – equivalent to about ten extra days annual leave. So, it became common practice to take this extra time off and place it around a conveniently placed public holiday. So, if you take Ascension Day as an example – always the last Thursday in May – not only will you take the Friday off, but also the Wednesday and why not the following Monday? And because in all French companies, all annual leave goes from May to May and all annual leave must be taken by the end of May or it is lost and because there are no less than 3 or 4 public holidays though May and into early June – workers with enough time in lieu can get a whole heap of holiday in May

For the record, in May there are 3 main holidays – May 1st (Labour Day) May 8th (VE Day) Ascension Day and in early June there is Whit Monday. If the May holidays fall near enough a weekend (i.e. midweek) the French average French worker will take a few bridging days and perhaps a whole fortnight’s holiday. Not bad but perhaps bad for business, which is why many bosses would like less public holidays.

So, this year, Armistice day (November 11th) falls on a Tuesday – for sure, there won’t be many people at work on Monday 10th.

Mind you, apart from shopping, what do the French do on their public holidays? Well, you know the answer to that. They do what they always do – loll around eating vast amounts of food. It’s the big public holiday thing – LUNCH, but in the long French lunch tradition. Family and friends turn up around 12h30 for the aperitif. With a bit of luck, you might start eating around 2pm and you light just make it to the dessert by 6pm. Some Francophiles rave about this, but actually there is no greater, boring waste of time than just sitting and eating all day (just a personal opinion which will enrage my French friends). I am very much a public holiday shopper. Why sit round gorging yourself on gourmet fare, when, you could be out ogling at consumer durables?

I’m glad that the shops are open today. Nothing worse than a small town public holiday Saturday where everything is closed, followed by Sunday, where everything is closed, followed by Monday) traditionally the day when many small shops close because they were open on Saturday. Oh dear.

Of course public holiday opening is one thing. The big up and coming debate is the one about Sunday opening. Yes, France is closed on a Sunday – to the delight of some and the chagrin of others. That unholy alliance of Clergy and Trade Union Leaders supporting a Sabbath shutdown, whilst the rest of us workaday folks wouldn’t say no to a spot of Sunday opening. Well that’s a debate for another post.

Be it for breasts or saints. Enjoy your day.

As for the French – this – All Saints Day, is that time of year that you go and spruce up the last resting place of the dear departed.  Polish up the maybe grave stone, rip out weeds around the grave, lay a few flowers and … This is the one day of the year that you won’t find a parking space at the cemetery. I think it’s good that we have a public holiday for dead people though – they need a day off too. It’s hard work being dead – a 24/7 week. Why shouldn’t dead people have a minimum working week?

And a final word on the holiday on the day it falls. Imagine if you will that January 1st falls on a Sunday – yes, we are all back at work on January 2nd – far too soon to have recovered from the New Year hangover.