Monday, April 28, 2008

Travailler plus...pourquoi?

Travailler plus pour gagner plus. Work more to earn more. This was Mr. Sarkozy's battle cry as he triumphantly marched his way to the French presidency last spring. He brought promises of modernizing the French employment system, lightening the employer tax on overtime and undoing or updating the infamous 35-hour work week. Enterprising employees everywhere would soon be free to work hard and prosper.

One year later, no one seems to care any longer. Two weeks of April school vacation ran merrily into May, the happy-go-lucky month of sunshine and long weekends. Suddenly no one in Paris is at work, or if they are, they are either on the web planning their August vacation or standing outside the office with coffee and a cigarette enjoying the mild spring weather.

To those in the US who view May as just another month, at least until Memorial Day and the official start of summer, know that in France the month holds four national holidays: May Day (la fête du travail), Ascension Day, the 8th of May (Victoire 1945), and Pentecost Monday. If, as this year, May Day and the 8th fall on either a Tuesday or a Thursday, everyone takes the "bridge" days off and heads out of town for two consecutive four-day weekends.

Meanwhile no one seems to notice that Pentecost Monday is no longer officially a national holiday. Recent legislation, enacted after the 2003 heat wave that caused the deaths of many of France's elderly, had declared it a journée de solidarité and all earnings from that day are earmarked for caring for the elderly and the handicapped. The French have shown less than unanimous enthusiastic solidarity about the idea, despite such a worthy cause. After exception after exception, some as ridiculous as the SNCF adding 1 minute and 52 seconds of working time per day, companies are now left to their own devices -- or rather, left to fight with their unions -- to determine which day of the year to give back.

My company's solution was to note that Ascension Day falls on the first of May this year. Two holidays, one stone. Pentecost Monday can therefore be kept and the question put off until next year.

I was not planning to take much time off in May this year, so soon after my return from maternity leave. I figured I would take the "bridge" days, which with my Wednesdays off, still made for five- and six- day weekends. Then my project was canceled and at the same time an administrative glitch meant that some of the vacation I had built up from last year couldn't be paid and had to be taken before the beginning of June. The result? I'm taking the last two weeks of the month off as well.

My boss has never approved my vacation so cheerfully. "You want another week in May? Take another week off in May!" he suggested with a smile and a shrug. He's off in Alsace for two weeks at the moment. And me? Well, I'm headed for the Loire Valley on Wednesday. A week later we'll be off to visit family in either Troyes or La Rochelle. The end of the month promises ten days in the Gers, the land of milk and honey. And the week before that? That may be my real vacation: I will have a week just to myself, while le Petit spends his days with la nounou.

All this brings me back to travailler plus pour...quoi ? Exactly why was it that we were supposed to work more again? I seem to have forgotten.

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