The French love their holidays. There are lots of them scattered throughout the year but July and August are the months of les grandes vacances, or the “grand vacations”. Most people take two to three weeks off in either July or August. Those who vacation in July are called juillettists (pronounced jwee-yeah-teest) and those who take August holidays are called aoûtiens (pronounced ah-oo-sian). For the sake of simplicity, we’ll call them Julyists and Augustians.
Closed for Vacation
With everyone on holiday, business really slows down in July and is almost non-existent in August (except for tourism, of course). So if you are in France and need to get some kind of administrative paperwork done during these months, don’t frustrate yourself, just relax and go to the beach with everyone else because nothing is going to get done until September.
But business didn’t always grind to a halt in July and August. Before 1936 few people, other than government employees, had paid time off. Then in 1936 there were general strikes throughout France and one of the demands was for a paid holiday. The government finally decided that it was healthy for people to have a few weeks off work to relax and that their work would improve because of it.
Vacation? What to Do?
On June 20, 1936, a law was passed that gave every salaried employee two weeks of paid leave. A few weeks later, on the first of August, all salaried employees were on holiday. For many, it was the first one of their lives.
They went to the countryside and the seaside. Initially, these overworked French people weren’t sure what one did on holiday, so they just watched the rich for a while and started to imitate them. They were fast learners and soon they were sitting in the sun drinking cool drinks. They were getting the hang of vacationing and they liked it.
Pack up the car
In the 1950s, when a third week of vacation time was added and automobiles were widely owned, the French started packing up their cars and travelling across the country (mostly heading south) for their “grand vacations”. This was the birth of mass tourism which lead to the first “grand traffic-jams”.
In the 1960s, a fourth week of vacation time was added, then in the 1980s a fifth. As holidays grew longer, workers were often given a choice of when to take their time off. They divided into two camps: those who took their breaks in July and those who vacationed in August. Today, July and August are still the two most active months for people going on holiday. And every year, the weekend with the biggest traffic jams is when the Julyists, who are returning home cross paths with the Augustians who are leaving on holiday. These massive jams are known as the chassé-croisé after a dance where the partners continually cross in front of each other.
Of course, not everyone participates in this dance because not everyone gets paid time off. It only applies to salaried employees so those who are self-employed or not salaried don’t get paid holidays. And not all employees get to choose their holiday date either. Some businesses (almost 40%) close for the month of August and all their employees have no choice but to be Augustians.
But for those who are salaried and do have a holiday choice, it seems that their choice might say something about their outlook on life and work. In the larger companies, at least, some stereotypes have developed over the years for these two groups, with Augustians being seen as putting work before pleasure and the Julyists as just wanting to have fun.
But times are changing and the old stereotypes aren’t as valid as they once might have been. Fewer people are taking long holidays and many factors enter into their choice of dates. But July and August are still the favourite months for the “grand vacations” and there are still those who are very attached to their preferred month.
The Julyists and the Augustians may disagree on the best month to take a holiday, but they do agree on the best location. The largest percentage of both groups prefer to holiday at the sea side.
And there is one other point on which they can agree: The people who take their holidays in September are really strange! Which reminds me… I’m taking my holiday in September this year. I’m going to Italy to study Italian again so my posts may be less frequent for the next few months. Hope you have had (and are still having) a wonderful summer!
*Find out more about French customs in my book, French Holidays & Traditions.
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