Tuesday, 3 June 2008

We all like a dummy run at something to make sure the important event runs smoothly : mock ‘O’ levels, that is to say, those exams we used to sit before straight ‘A’s started to fall out of cereal packets ; altitude training before World Cups in Mexico and theatre dress rehearsals. Whilst a German Christmas replete with gingerbread and mulled wine, a Carnival in Rio and a White Night in St. Petersburg can conjure up engaging images of whole countries, France’s public persona could be defined by a prolonged period of inactivity i.e. the months of July and August. To enjoy these few weeks to maximum effect, the country needs a trial run. Religious festivals, white flags and human rights put their heads together and came up with…the month of May.

In Britain, we used to have May Day and Whit Monday, a pretty understandable and harmless system by anyone’s reckoning. Never to be left behind in the pursuit of meaningless political correctness, Whit Monday ceded to the pedestrian Spring Bank Holiday in 1971 and, just in case anyone was confused by a simple rhyme, May Day became the prosaic and uninspired Early May Bank Holiday. Should we ever have to re-christen the Queen we could no doubt rely on this same name-quango to come up with ‘Smiling Woman with Crown’. Whatever the title, two days at May’s extremities devoted to waiting at traffic lights outside B&Q keeps Britain happy and productive, so what do they do in France ?

Exactly a week after Labour Day, May 1st, the Germans decided in 1945 that enough was enough. Having started the month with 24 hours of inactivity the French still feel, sixty-odd years on, that the best way to nurture a new, enlightened European cuddle-fest with their mighty neighbours is to carry on rubbing their noses in their defeat by continuing to observe the anniversary of their demise as a national holiday. Easter fell earlier this year than a three-legged horse in 2.30 at Aintree so Ascension and Pentecost were sprinkled into the mix. As luck would have it, Ascension fell on May 1st, provoking enormous debates in the media about losing a day’s sitting around sipping aperitifs. Many employers backed down, offering an additional day which most people took…immediately ! As May 1st was a Thursday that made for a long weekend. More was in store the next week after Armistice Day, also a Thursday. With Pentecost looming the following Monday, many citizens of the country who voted Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency on his ticket of ‘work more to earn more’ invoked their inalienable human right to take another day off. Yes, dear readers : Friday, May 9th had as much chance of seeing sweat and toil as a turkey hanging around Bernard Matthews’ rifle store has of seeing Christmas.

This habit of taking a day off between a public holiday and a weekend (or vice versa) is called ‘doing the bridge’ and is perfectly respectable, nay, sometimes encouraged. It’s a bit like having an unspeakably badly-behaved child and, instead of taking time out to consider the shortcomings of either his diet, upbringing or both, deciding to give his delinquency a convincing, pseudo-medical name. In a country which already religiously observes upwards of nine public holidays annually, a 35-hour working week and a bottomless summer pit of inertia, the obsession with ‘doing the bridge’ can only be attributed to Lazysod Syndrome. Even our childrens’ school suffers from it : after a two-week Easter holiday they opened for three days before taking a four-day weekend. The following Wednesday was the monthly ‘Class-free day’ (funny how that never seems to fall during the vacations) and were, naturally, closed on Armistice Day. With an academic rhythm of six weeks’ tuition followed by a fortnight off, no-one can claim that France’s teaching staff are overworked : upwards of a certain age group, teachers are required to spend no more than 17 hours a week in front of pupils; the rest of their paid time being allocated to preparation and marking. I compare that to my mother spending 8.45am to 4pm in front of a class of 40 children, Monday to Friday, coming home and cooking for two sons before sitting down with her schoolwork until late into the night and could weep.

‘Doing the Bridge’ isn’t confined to single weekends. This year, some people took the surrounding, pesky un-bridgeable ‘working days’ off and partied from May 1st to Pentecost, thus concocting a Spring Break comparable to an entire year’s vacation allowance in the US, for example. Golden Gate, anyone ?

France wouldn’t be France if some people didn’t take a screwdriver to the back of this already terminally-blonde one-armed holiday bandit and look for more. A nationwide strike was decreed on May 15th by various civil servant unions to protest about President Sarkozy’s projected reforms, their purchasing power etc. Naturally, there was no school and protesters filled the streets in many major cities and towns that afternoon: change the world, yes, but only after I’ve had my lunch. Great traditions are upheld in this country, so it’ll come as no surprise to know that this month’s National Therapy Day was…a Thursday.