What’s most important – the well-being of workers or the national economy?
The question of the burden of France’s public holidays on the country's economy has come under the spotlight once again this week after a report by statistics agency INSEE stated that they will cost the country €2 billion in 2013.
And when times are hard, as they are in France at the moment, there are some who say that €2 billion is too much just to ignore.
Questions are once against being asked as to whether the number of days off should be cut, or a different system found that would see more flexibility, and allow companies to remain open on May Day, Ascension, Pentecost and other public holidays.
But the message from union leaders and several politicians on Tuesday was “hands off our holidays”.
Joseph Thouvenel, Vice-president of the Confederation Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (Confederation of Christian Workers-CFTC) – which is battling against a growing trend by companies to make their employees go into work on public holidays – tells The Local why France is a more “balanced country” because of its public holidays.
“The workers have a right to these days off. They are days of rest, which are important for someone’s family or social life as well as for people’s spiritual life.
“Family life is so important for the balance of a country, but obviously you won’t find economic stats that will be able to prove this.
“We understand that in certain areas like transport, tourism or even journalism it’s necessary to work on public holidays, but that's not the case for businesses like supermarkets, banks, and so on.
“If workers are made to work then it disrupts French society. For example if you play rugby, you need to train and practice as a team. That is only possible if everyone is off together, at the same time.
“For decades all kinds of activities and events have taken place in France on public holidays, whether it’s religious pilgrimages, a march by the Friends of François Mitterrand organization or the festival in Nîmes.
“If you start taking away these holidays from people then people cannot participate in these kind of social activities.
“Even if you just want to go to the cinema, you have worked for this and should be able to go.
“The people who are against these days are normally the rich. But poorer people deserve the right to have these days off.
“People say it costs €2 billion but they are not taking into account the benefits of public holidays to France. You cannot put a price on the balance that they bring to a country.
“Neither are they taking into account the boost the economy receives from tourism, transport, and so on, over these holidays.
“Opening a supermarket on a public holiday brings nothing to a country. Statistics have shown that Greece is the hardest-working country in Europe in terms of hours worked, but look at the country’s economy. It is a complete failure."
Not everyone agrees however. Jean Christophe Sciberras, president of the National Association of Human Resources Directors (ANDRH) told The Local that France needs to be more flexible when it comes to certain public holidays, especially May 8th which commemorates the victory over the German army at the end of World War Two.
"I don't understand why France has May 8th as a public holiday when the rest of Europe is working," Sciberras said. "I don't think the French really care about May 8th.
"The problem in France is not so much the number of public holidays but the concentration of them in May.
"The government could negotiate a win-win solution with unions that could allow them to make some employees work over the public holidays.
"Businesses would be able to remain open and then those workers could take a day off at some other time of the year.
"Obviously its not easy for businesses to do on their own because French schools will be closed and many workers will simply say 'I need to be home to look after my children'.
"I don't see why French schools have to close on all of these days either.
"We could do a poll to find out which days are the most important that we need to keep as a collective day off, like Christmas and which can be made optional. There needs to be more flexibility.
"We also believe that people of other religions should not be forced to take Christian bank holidays. Again we think there needs to be greater flexibility to allow them to take a public holiday when it is a festival in their own religion."
'Holidays part of France's history'
However, some of France's politicians speaking on Tuesday were more in line with Thouvenel.
Labour Minister Michel Sapin believes the public holidays in May must remain.
“We had the same questions last May and the one before that. Let’s be reasonable. You will see the benefit of these holidays. It does not stop people from working hard when they return to work,” Sapin told Europe1 radio.
As well as defending public holidays, Sapin also dismissed former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s slogan of “work more, earn more” in favour of his own “work better" adage.
“This idea of ‘work more’ has been said before and that led to the failure in France that we saw one year ago,” said Sapin, referring to Sarkozy’s election defeat.
The leader of France’s far-right National Front party also weighed into the debate, insisting there should be no change to public holidays, because they are part of France’s Christian history.
“We work hard and are almost the most productive workers in the world,” Le Pen told France 2 TV.
“We have a history and we have our roots in religion, and it’s the same for the public holidays because it is Christianity that built France,” she said.