David P. Hamilton : France is on Vacation

Image from Gem’s World Postcards.

Letters from France VII:

En vacances payé…

Paid vacations and how we live

The value placed on time off from work holds leisure, family, and the pursuit of happiness more important than the pursuit of profits.

By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog /August 9, 2011

[This is the seventh in a series of dispatches from France by The Rag Blog‘s David P. Hamilton.]

PARIS — It’s August and France is on vacation. If you are an American tourist visiting Paris for the first time this month, you will find it strange that most restaurants that are not part of international chains are closed for the month. That famous boulangerie that makes award-winning baquettes you read about in the guide book will be closed too. If you’re renting a short term apartment, don’t dream of calling a plumber.

Strange too will be how few Parisians are in evidence. The metro isn’t crowded. It seems they have abandoned the place to the tourists. Those Parisians that remain may be more surly than usual. They’re resentful for having to work in August providing services to vacationing Americans while all their friends are at the beach.

By one measure, there are two types of French: juilletistes and aoutiens (those who take their extended summer vacation in July and those who take it in August). Regardless, the mass exodus from the workplace to vacation destinations is annual, sudden, and on a vast scale.

Before the development of the network of modern super highways, major roads leading south out of Paris were made one-way for 24 hours on August 1st. Now the vacation time is somewhat staggered, but literally hundreds of thousands of Parisians leave every year at virtually the same time, most headed south. The population center of the whole country shifts several kilometers southward within a matter of hours. If you awoke from a hundred-year sleep, you would think the Prussians were advancing on Paris once again.

To some degree this concentration of vacation is compulsory. Employers are required by law to grant an extended paid leave between May and October. School vacation is in July and August. Many businesses just close down for the month.

This lull in activity is reflected in measures of the French economy. There is an annual third quarter contraction. Manufacturing can be off as much as 25% for the month. But France is the world’s number one tourist destination and the French love to travel within their own country more than any other, so facilities specifically related to tourism will be bustling. It’s high season and that especially refers to prices, which throughout the country become those that Parisians are already accustomed to paying.

To Americans it seems quite phenomenal that a major country can run its affairs in this way. Much of France literally shuts down for the month. Even political campaigns pack it up and go to the beach. Sègoléne Royale, attempting to revive her faltering campaign for the Parti Socialiste nomination for president in October, announced she would reduce her vacation to nine days, clearly a sacrifice of significant proportions meant to signal her extreme seriousness.

The value placed on time off from work holds leisure, family, and the pursuit of happiness more important than the pursuit of profits.

The World Tourism Organization studied “the average number of paid vacation days per year employees receive” in nine developed countries. France ranked second with 37 days a year, behind Italy’s 42. The U.S. was a very distant last, trailing eighth place Japan by 12 days. According to this study, the typical U.S. worker gets only 13 paid vacation days a year, IF they meet certain criteria, such as having a decade of seniority.

Nationmaster.com says workers in France get “seven weeks, the most significant vacation time of any country in the world,” plus public holidays, while paid vacations for U.S. workers are “not required, but typically [are] 10 working days with eight national holidays.”

CNN Money says “typical practice among large U.S. companies” is that workers with 10 years seniority get an average of 15 days paid vacation and 10 paid public holidays a year. All French workers get at least 30 and 10 by legal right regardless of their tenure on the job.

CNN also points out that “unlike in most other countries (including all the EU), there is no U.S. federal law mandating that companies pay employees for time off or that they grant them a minimum amount of vacation days unpaid.” Indeed, according the Center for Economic Policy and Research, the U.S. is “the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.”

Most U.S. workers actually get much less than the “typical” cited above. When CNN considered “companies of all sizes and workers of all tenures,” the number of paid vacation days and public holidays for U.S. workers dropped to nine and six. A quarter of U.S. workers get no paid vacation time at all.

Another way to look at this is that, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2008 the average U.S. worker worked 1,792 hours a year compared to 1,560 hours a year for the worker in France. That’s 29 more eight-hour days a year for the U.S. worker, more than a month of additional work.

Some results attributed in part to this extended time off are that productivity is higher in France than in the U.S., French workers are paid better for the time they work, and the pay scale is more equitable. The minimum wage in France is about $13 an hour, compared to $7.25 in the U.S. and unions are much stronger there, especially in the public sector. The official poverty rate in France is the seventh lowest among 152 nations listed and less than half the poverty rate in the U.S., according to the 2009 CIA World Factbook.

Paid vacations are not the only time off from work the French enjoy. A new mother gets 16 to 26 weeks of maternity leave at full pay, depending on how many children she has. She can get up to a year off with her employment guaranteed. Fathers get two weeks off paid paternity leave and can share up to two years of unpaid time off with the mother, their employments guaranteed.

Families also get approximately 2,000 euros ($2,900) when they have a child followed by payments of around 100 euros ($145) a month per child until the child is 20 years old. If you are adopting a child, you get more. The family of a child with disabilities gets much more. Add to this the fact that with a note from a doctor sick leaves are unlimited and the French work week is only 35 hours long.

American workers have for decades been taught to internalize values that make the interests of their employer paramount. Depending on which study you read, in 2007 between one third and half of employed U.S. adults don’t use all the vacation time they have coming to them. 39% of U.S. men and 30% of women feel guilty about taking time off from work. 25% of U.S. workers and 33% of managers have bosses who expect them to be on-call while on vacation.

And the situation is getting worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American man today works 100 more hours a year than he did in the 1970s, the average woman 200 hours more. With high unemployment, job insecurity, weak unions, and poor benefits for the unemployed, the worker’s forced subservience to the needs and values of the employer is amplified.

The typical American sleeps one to two hours a night less than his or her parents did. Those extra work hours come at the expense of rest and time spent with family and friends, and in creative or leisure activities. They come with a price measured in anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, depression, and poor health.

According to Cornell economist Robert Frank, in the U.S. the incentives are set up to systematically underemphasize leisure and overemphasize consumption. He who dies with the most toys wins. We must consume on a level that keeps us abreast or ahead of our peers and on a level that keeps the profits of the capitalists growing.

Frank argues that this value reflects a classic failure of collective action. An individual would be worse off if he or she were to unilaterally opt out of the “positional competition.” But we would all be better off if we decided collectively to ratchet down the economic one-upmanship of consumerism and instead devote a bit more time and resources to the leisure time we claim to desire.

However, collective action by workers is anathema in the U.S. capitalist hegemony. Our rulers prefer a society of rugged individualists, standing tall in the sunset puffing Marlboros beside their new 4X4 super heavy duty pickup truck.

Not surprisingly, France’s policy on paid vacations was initiated by the Popular Front government composed of Socialists and Communists soon after they took power in the election of June 1936. The right to an extended paid vacation was part of the Matignon Agreements that also included winning the 40-hour work week, the right to join a union, bargain collectively, and strike, the removal of all obstacles to union organization, and a 7-12% pay increase for all workers.

These concessions were won in one afternoon meeting that included representatives of unions, employers, and the government. The Popular Front had just won the election to control the National Assembly, Leon Blum had become the first Socialist (and Jewish) prime minister, and a million French workers were honoring a general strike that had swept France after the Popular Front electoral victory. Hundreds of factories had been occupied by their workers to prevent lockouts.

Under those circumstances, the capitalists readily capitulated on all points. Given France’s long history of multiple popular insurrections, they had little choice. Every expansion of these benefits and defense of them since 1936 has come about as a result of initiatives from the organized and militant left.

Extended vacations are now considered a tradition and a necessity by the French, a part of their collective consciousness for the entire year. Beginning in the spring, conversation turns to vacation plans. The experience itself builds family bonds and gives life variety and perspective.

In the fall, you share memories of last summer. The cold, gray winter is warmed by dreams of where you might go when summer vacation comes again. A co-worker not taking a vacation is pitied. The most vivid childhood memories are those of long family vacations. Paid time off and travel are now firmly ingrained elements of modern French culture.

Through generations of collective struggle they have won that benefit in order to pursue their muse or their decadence, but regardless, to better define their own existence. Although otherwise generally positive, my own memories of family vacations in France include watching a relative spend hours running up over $3,000 in phone bills from a Paris hotel room while trying to keep up with business responsibilities back in the USA.

It is said that Americans live to work and the French work to live. That truism reflects the stage of the class struggle in our collective mentalities.

[David P. Hamilton has been a political activist in Austin since the late 1960s when he worked with SDS and wrote for The Rag, Austin’s underground newspaper. Read more articles by David P. Hamilton on The Rag Blog.]

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1 Response to David P. Hamilton : France is on Vacation

  1. Mariann says:

    Fascinating and again I am glad to be reading Raj Patel’s “The Value of Nothing”, thanks to Sarito, for far-ranging discussion of how societies set values — including the value of leisure and family time — MUST READING!!

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