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Breaking with tradition: French summer holidays

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A deserted Deauville beach. What will happen to the great French holiday? Photo: Guillaume Paumier
14:16 CET+01:00
France's tradition of the long summer holiday is under threat after a minister suggested cutting it to six weeks. In this week's Tête-a-tête The Local asks those that matter if the curtain should come down on "Les grandes vacances".

France’s lengthy summer break is as much a part of the country’s culture as croissants and cinema. Any hint by those in power that the tradition could do with a little updating, always sparks a media frenzy.  

That indeed was the case this week when the Minister for Education Vincent Peillon suggested on live TV that 'les grandes vacances’ as they are known in France could be shortened from the current eight or nine weeks to six. Nothing too outrageous of course, but the inevitable heated debate soon followed.

Cutting  the summer break to six weeks would bring France into line with its neighbours Germany and the UK, but way out of sync with Italy and Portugal where children take 12 weeks off.

But will the French agree to a change in their great tradition? The Local asks the views of three main affected parties - teachers, parents and the tourism industry.

The schools - Sebastian Sihr, secretary-general of SNUipp-FSU, France’s main teachers’ union:

“For us it’s not a taboo subject. It’s a tradition in France which is to do with the history of people working in the fields during the summer. Everyone was mobilized for that reason. We have around two months off but this is just average for Europe. In some countries it is more and in others it’s less.

“There’s a tradition to have a long break. As a union we are not opposed to changing this but we need to look at the timetable as a whole, not just with regards to the summer break. We also need to look at the school day, everything. The minister has decided to reform the 2013 timetable and now he wants to change the summer holidays from 2015. Parents and teachers won’t understand anything. It’s incomprehensible.

“If you changed the summer holidays and split the country into three zones it would completely imbalance the school year. If you want to increase the number of school days from 144 then we can play with the other holidays or perhaps Wednesday mornings.

“We need to find a balance. It will have knock-on effects for the summer exams – the Baccalaureate. How will that be organized if the country is in two zones? We also have a lot of families now spread across different zones, so that too will cause a lot of problems.

“The children are the most important thing to consider in all this. The problem is that there are other economic interests at play like the tourist industry. If the minister decides to change something it is not the teachers he will be listening to but the tourism chiefs. Somewhere behind the policy lie economic interests."

The tourist industry - Didier Arina, president of the company Protourisme:

“The French are really attached both socially and culturally to the long summer holidays. It’s a tradition that goes back a long way. It’s in our blood to go away in the summer. Any minister who attempts to change it comes up against a mini-revolution.

“It’s just like trying to change anything in France – it’s always complicated. We are ‘revolutionary conservatives’. It’s hard to get anything done here. It would not be a bad thing to cut the number of holidays down to six weeks, but we would like to see a zone system introduced, with two or three zones that could overlap to have three weeks in common. The common weeks could perhaps be the last in July and the first two in August. This system already exists for the winter holidays and works fine so it could also work for summer.

“While some say the zone system might make it harder for families split between different regions, it might actually make it easier for some. Children could go on holiday with one parent who lives in one zone and then the other.

“What is important for us is not the number of days they have off school but the number of days the French go on holiday for. At the moment the average is just 13 days. It’s not that much and its getting less and less because people cannot afford it.

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“The teaching unions are a powerful body and a difficult machine to move. This means it will be difficult to change anything.”

The parents: Jean-Jacques Hazan, president of the Federation of the Councils of Parents of State School pupils:

“We are in favour of a reduction to the summer holidays. Millions of children do not even get to go on holiday and on average the French only go away for two to three weeks. But if it changes then we want the government to respect the routine of having a maximum of seven weeks in school followed by two weeks off. According to experts, it takes children around one week to get school out of their system so they need the second week to really rest.

“We feel that the current eight to nine weeks off is too long for the children. After two months of holidays many children have forgotten what they learned the previous year and struggle to get back into the right frame of mind.

“It is also true that parents have trouble organizing summer holidays for their children, whether it’s for financial reasons or for some other problem. Because parents themselves get less holidays, they often have to pay to leave them at leisure centres, leave them at home or make arrangements with members of their families.

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