In August, France’s Month Off, Even the Family Rabbit Must Learn to Make Do

Times Staff Writer

Every year, more than half of France’s vacationers take their summer holidays at the same time, during the month of August--a custom that chokes the resorts, quiets the bustle of a great city like Paris and cuts the industrial production of the country by a third.

The economy of France is so lethargic in August that several thousand billboards are blank. This is not true this year, however, for the heads of three advertising companies have decided to use 9,000 empty billboards to promote a favorite cause.

They want their compatriots to produce more babies. “Sex is not the only thing in life,” their billboards say. “France needs children.”


Off to the Beach

The holidays in August set off an exodus that denudes the large cities like Paris of many of their usual residents and swells the population of beach resorts, such as Deauville on the Normandy coast, to more than four times their winter size. Tourists fill some but not all of the room in the cities.

Anxious for a vacation themselves and serving fewer people every day, many Parisian shopkeepers close in August and follow their customers to the beaches. Parisians left behind continually complain that they can’t find a newspaper stand, a dry cleaner or a hair dresser open during this period, the time of the conge annuel-- the yearly holiday.

A few days ago, a woman stood in front of a closed news and magazine shop and asked passers-by if they knew where she could buy a newspaper. A man suggested that she head two blocks forward and turn to the left. Another woman suggested she head two blocks back and turn to the left. The woman in quest of the paper hesitated, started to follow the man’s advice, then changed her mind and headed off to another neighborhood.

Gastronomic Temples Shut

Taillevent, considered by many to be the finest restaurant in France, closes in August. In fact, of the 10 restaurants ranked by the Gault Millau guide as the best in Paris, seven close for all or a large part of the month.

The offices of the Paris Opera are also shut tight. It is impossible to find anyone there to discuss subscriptions for the new season, even though the deadline for buying them comes quickly in September.

It takes experience and planning to deal with the problems of Paris in August. The household of this correspondent, for example, new to Paris, was caught short of prepared rabbit food last year when the neighborhood pet shop closed for August. Jacques, the pet rabbit, refused to accept corn flakes as a substitute but finally and grudgingly settled for granola. This year, wiser to the ways of Paris, we bought enough rabbit food in advance to tide Jacques over August.

Tourists may not notice the problem. Almost all the shops, restaurants and bars in the city’s major tourist centers--such as the Champs Elysees, the area of the Pompidou Center and the streets near Notre Dame--stay open. The tourist trade is just too lucrative to give up.


And for residents remaining in Paris, there are a number of advantages. Traffic is relatively light. A driver can find parking spaces easily. The city suspends the usual charge for parking on the streets. There are almost no lines in the banks.

Short Days

Some Parisians confide that working in August brings them a bonus: It’s something like an extra vacation. Since so many businesses shut down, officials at work find it nearly impossible to reach any one outside their own offices. With little to do, they sometimes take a good part of the day off.

Holidays in August are so standard that the French have a special, almost official way of describing their return to work in September: la rentree, which means “the return” or, literally, “the re-entry.” This is much like “back-to-school” days for students in the United States. But in France it covers virtually everyone.

Leading political figures hold “rentree” receptions to meet with the press. “The rentree,” wrote Michel Noblecourt of the newspaper Le Monde, “is traditionally the moment when labor unions try to awaken the ardor of their militants.” The Communist trade union federation, he reported, is planning a tough “rentree” this year. In France, September is treated much like the beginning of a new year.

Statistics make it clear that the French custom of vacationing at the same time hurts the economy. In 1984, for example, the index of industrial production dropped from 120 in July to 86 for August.

Automobile production fell from 252,700 cars in July to 90,500 in August. Pottery output dropped from 8,498 tons in July to 1,590 tons in August. Production of paper and carton boxes dropped from 555,360 tons in July to 214,630 tons in August. The total value of exports fell from 72.7 billion francs worth in July to 57.9 billion francs worth in August.


Much of the August decline in French industrial activity is made up by increased production in the months when everyone is working--but not all. In 1983, the French government estimated that the concentration of holidays in August decreases the country’s industrial production as a whole by 10% every year.

On top of this, the government said, the French pattern of holidaying overcrowds resorts, damages camping sites and beaches, and forces the owners of resort facilities to try to accumulate as much of a profit as they can in the month of August. The short period for profit-making, the government said, inflates prices and offers only limited employment.

In an attempt to do away with the custom, the Ministry of Leisure launched a campaign in 1983 to persuade French companies to stagger vacations for employees throughout the summer. The latest statistics and the present mood of Paris, however, show no noticeable change.

Since the campaign began, the ministry disappeared and its functions have been taken over by the Ministry of Youth and Sports. A recent phone call to that ministry to find out how the anti-August campaign was faring got no results. No one seemed to know who was in charge of the campaign.

Those who might know were away for their August holidays.