Paris in August

To an Anglo-Saxon, Paris is a mass of contradictions

Dateline: 12 August 2005

Geographically, Paris is not so far away. It is a seven hour flight from New York, Boston or Montreal. And even in August these nonstop round trips can be under $1000. If you take a cheaper route $700 is realistic, though it can boost the journey time to around 11 hours. Travel time is therefore about the same as Los Angeles, though somewhat more expensive.

Culturally, though, Paris is a long way from New York. The city that never sleeps could not be more different from the city that takes August off. In France people work a 35 hour week and have a minimum of five weeks paid vacation a year. Oddly, the 35 hour week, phased in a few years ago, has reduced the French habit of taking long summer vacations. It is pretty easy to finish your working week by Friday lunchtime, or even Thursday night, so people take long weekends and mini vacations all through the year. Nonetheless, the major employers in Paris still anticipate pretty much closing up for August.

This tendency is exaggerated by the fact that, unlike New York, Paris is the political capital as well as the cultural and business capital. The government is the largest employer in Paris. As in other countries, French government workers have an easier life than their private sector colleagues: 35 hours is the maximum working week and five weeks is the minimum vacation time. Certain areas of Washington DC are pretty dead at the weekend, but in Paris this can last for weeks.

If this diet of long weekends and frequent vacations sounds pretty civilized, there is, of course, a downside. The economy is stagnant; unemployment is at 10% nationwide, but far higher among the young and in depressed areas. The tax burden of 43.8% (2003) is one of the highest in Europe, and far higher than the US. But this understates the intrusiveness of French government. The government has controlling shareholdings in large corporations such as Renault and Air France and minority shareholdings in major banks and insurers. These corporations, in turn, have shareholdings in other, smaller companies, so the influence of government cascades throughout the economy.

American liberals who like the sound of this pervasive state and regulated economy probably find much to admire in France. Jacques Chirac opposed the liberation of Iraq, wants to see Europe become a superpower to rival the US, and is a harsh critic of globalization. But American liberals would find much in France that they would not like. The French have a word for “vegetarian”, but they don’t really mean it. They think it means you don’t want beef with your pork and chicken. The “non-smoking” section of a French restaurant is sitting next to someone who has put one cigarette out and not yet lit the next one.

But France remains the world’s favorite tourist destination for good reasons. The climate is mild and equable. In the summer, especially in the south, it is extremely pleasant. The cheese, bread and wine are fabulous. The countryside is beautiful and the museums are extensive, and filled with art looted from across the world.

While you should never believe French history – the Napoleon Bonaparte “liberated” Europe or that General De Gaulle led the Normandy landings of 1944 – the country remains a fine one to visit. And the French exodus from their capital every August has its bright side for tourists: the roads are quiet, the sidewalks empty and beautiful buildings are all around you.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 12 August 2005

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