Work in August? Non!

Times Staff Writer

AS an American who lives in Paris, I am always amazed at the way the French close up shop and go on vacation for the whole month of August. It’s a sacred rite, sanctioned by the law that gives French workers five weeks of paid vacation a year. Many head to the beach or vacation homes in the country. Others spend the month traveling to such far-away places as India, French Polynesia and the Seychelles.

Unlike those Americans who earn considerable time off but don’t take it, the French feel no compunction about being away from the job during what is known as le conge annuel, although a certain cadre of Paris hot dogs have begun staying at their desks in August just to show how important they are.

American workers, on the other hand, tend to let unused vacation days accumulate, partly because of the demands of high-intensity jobs in a competitive workplace.

A recent study reported that Americans save their employers more than $21 billion a year in unused vacation time.


When Americans do go away, it’s usually just for a long weekend, according to the 2006 National Leisure Travel Monitor, a study conducted by the marketing company Yesawich Pepperdine Brown & Russell/Yankelovich Inc., which gives them no time to see St. Petersburg, Fla., or Angkor Wat, Cambodia. And no matter where they go, they tend to take the workplace with them in the form of laptop computers and cellphones.

This year, French workers are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the paid vacation, enacted into law in 1936, when the socialist Front Populaire came briefly into power. Its leader, Prime Minister Leon Blum, created a governmental department for sports and leisure, which detractors called the Ministry of Laziness.

It negotiated a 40% reduction on train tickets so workers newly blessed with two weeks off could afford to go somewhere. A third week of paid vacation was mandated in 1956, a fourth in 1969 and a fifth under President Francois Mitterrand.

From the start, the French vacation impetus was connected with the belief that good workers deserve paid time off. Rustic vacation camps for the middle class were established, including some that ultimately became part of the Club Med chain. French workers from the big city, unaccustomed to leisure pursuits, had to learn how to vacation, picnic in the countryside and dip their toes in the surf.


The paid vacation arrived in the U.S. during the Depression, when New Deal work projects brought improved visitor facilities to national parks and recreational lakes. Cabin courts and motels rose up along highways, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged Americans lucky enough to have vacations to go away to “build up health and resistance.”

The advent of paid time off in America reflected some of the same societal changes that helped bring it about in France: the rise of the middle class, the mass movement of people from the country to the city and from farm work to factory jobs, the improvement of transportation.

But in America, companies also began offering paid vacation to workers partly to combat growing unionization. Time off in France was a gift from the government.

Moreover, the Puritan work ethic and emphasis on productivity in a capitalist society proved hard to dislodge, leaving Americans conflicted about vacations while the French embraced them.


“Americans engaged in a love/hate battle with their vacations -- both wanting to take them and fearing the consequences,” author Cindy S. Aron writes in “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States.”

Americans are especially keen on vacations with long-term benefits besides rest and recreation. We go abroad to study another language, work on archeological digs or environmental projects, and build low-income housing. Even those who go to luxury spas aim to get something useful out of the experience, be it healthful eating habits, yoga postures or relaxation skills (which the French, it seems, don’t need to be taught).

In her book, Aron, a University of Virginia history professor, also noted the growing American propensity to work while on vacation, enabled by technological advances that let us hook up to our desks at the beach or in the mountains.

Some resist the need to check e-mail and phone messages while on vacation, but others simply “find work more fun or more rewarding than anything a vacation might offer. Simply put, they like to work,” Aron wrote.


That’s me. Of course, my job as a travel writer is easy to like, and I’m happy to take my identity from it, as do many Americans in other lines of work.

Not so in France, where it’s considered gauche to start cocktail party conversation with “What do you do?” and where work is avoided on whatever pretext occurs, including long lunches, Monday mornings off, multitudinous national holidays, strikes (enjoyed even by uninvolved people who tend to stay home whenever big protests threaten to stop or slow down mass transit systems) and my favorite, the unexpected closure, or fermeture exceptionnelle.

In August, while the French are on vacation, I occasionally look up from my desk and wonder what’s with them.

Are their jobs so onerous that they can’t bear the thought of clocking in?


Is quasi-socialist France less driven by consumerism than fully capitalist America, where people work hard to afford new clothes, a second car, iPods, espresso makers and all the other accessories of contemporary life?

Don’t the French like work? And even if not, don’t they want to make money?

I can’t answer these questions, although they challenge me to justify my own workaholic habits. I tell myself I vastly prefer loving my job to simply putting up with it. I may work all the time, but I’m never bored. Five weeks off sounds good, but I know I’d never use them.

Aron was right: When it comes to taking time off, I’m conflicted. Or maybe I just need a vacation.