‘Les grandes vacances’ – the two-month summer break from school, is a tradition that runs deep in France. But it appears to be under threat.
On Sunday, Education Minister Vincent Peillon floated his intention to cut the length of the holidays from eight to nine weeks, down to six.
“We should be capable of having six weeks [school holidays] – that’s enough,” Peillon told BFMTV.
The Socialist minister also proposed “zoning” for the summer holidays. This is a system, already in place for winter and Easter holidays, where France is split into geographical ‘zones’, each with a different start and end date for the holidays.
Zoning was introduced in 1964, to prevent overcrowding on beaches and ski resorts, as well as other tourism-related problems.
The reaction to Peillon's announcement has been swift from France’s teaching unions.
"It's absolutely incomprehensible," Sébastien Sihr, secretary-general of SNUipp-FSU, France’s main teachers’ union, told The Local on Monday. "One minute he is propising to reform the school day, the next its the calender year. The parents, local authorities and the teachers cannot understand what is going on.
"It is not a taboo subject for us, but the whole school calender and timetable needs to be looked together," he added.
Christian Chevalier, secretary-general of the SE-UNSA union said “You don’t announce something brutal like this in that way,” said .
Referring to Minister Peillon’s apparent lack of consultation with teachers’ unions, he added “It's a great way to get everyone to dig their heels in against you,” Chevalier told financial daily Les Echos.
The proposal has gained support in some quarters, however. President of the ‘Fédération des Conseils de Parents d’Élèves’ (Federation of councils for the parents of school pupils), Jean-Jacques Hazan told BFMTV that he welcomed the minister’s idea.
“Nobody can afford to go away on holidays for eight or nine weeks,” he said. “And it’s a social reality that more than 3 million children never actually do,” added Hazan.
Peillon has had a frosty relationship with teachers’ unions lately, over his plans to increase their working week from four to four and a half school days – a move which has led to nationwide strikes by French schoolteachers.
Later in his TV appearance on Sunday, Peillon backtracked, denying that he had said he wanted to cut the holidays, and adding "six weeks holidays is the ideal model, but we'll have to have a long period of consultation."