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Why is Good Friday not a holiday in (most of) France?

Despite many other Christian festivals being public holidays in France, Good Friday is not a day off for the majority of the country. Here's why.

Why is Good Friday not a holiday in (most of) France?
Eating chocolate is absolutely still allowed during lockdown. Photo: Joël SAGET / AFP

Easter holidays are traditionally a time for families to gather and eat chocolate – but the four-day weekend is a tradition that only one part of France gets to enjoy.

It’s always been something of a puzzle why a country that gives workers the day off for Annunciation, Assumption and All Saints, among others, doesn’t have a holiday for Good Friday – the Friday before Easter.

And it’s even more weird when you consider that in some parts of the country it is actually a holiday. 

The tradition of treating the Friday before Easter as a normal work day didn’t start until 1905 when the country officially became secular, dividing the Church from the state. 

From then on, unlike the rest of Europe, French workers have been forced to treat Good Friday, called Vendredi Saint in French, as a day just like any other.

The procession of Easter’s Holy Thursday at Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral. Photo: AFP

But not everywhere.

Much to the envy of most workers in France, those living in the eastern Alsace area, now part of the Grand Est region, do get a day off on Good Friday.

And the reason for this is Alsace’s rather complicated history of switching hands between Germany and France. 

In 1871 Germany seized Alsace including most of the departments of Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin as well as most the department of Moselle in the region of Lorraine.

The territory wasn’t returned to France until the end of the First World War in 1918. 

At that point citizens of the territory weren’t exactly thrilled at the idea of losing the day off and simply refused to give it up…perhaps demonstrating a French side to their natures which hadn’t been lost during all those the years of German rule.  

Their demands were met and the piece of legislation which makes the region an exception, known as the Concordat of Alsace-Moselle, sealed the deal. 

And in fact, it is for this same reason that this region gets St.Stephen’s Day, also known as Boxing Day, as a day off like many other European countries.  Those living in the rest of France however have to return to work the day after Christmas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly there have been regular challenges to the Concordat, with many arguing that the region should have the same rules as the rest of the country. 

Although as Eric Sander, local law expert in the Grand Est capital Strasbourg, pointed out to France Bleu, there are unlikely to be any politicians willing to fight that particular battle.

Easter Monday

So following that logic, Easter Monday is presumably a normal day in France too?

No, actually Easter Monday is a public holiday.

And it’s unique in the French holiday calendar in that it’s the only day off where there isn’t either a national event or a Christian festival (although it’s obviously linked to Easter, the main day in the Christian calendar is Sunday, when Jesus rose again after being crucified).

It was Napoleon who made this a public holiday back in 1802 when he trimmed down the 50 or so public holidays that the French celebrated at the time.

So why didn’t Easter Monday get the chop along with Good Friday in 1905?

Er, well look, we never said France made sense. Just enjoy the day off.

Member comments

  1. One correction. The French do not have Annunciation Day (March 25) off, but Ascension Day off (a Thursday that is 40 days after Easter – this year on 25 May).

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‘The French have a taste for princes’ – Why British royals are so popular in France

The announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II has naturally caused widespread sadness and an outpouring of tributes in the UK, but also in France where the British royals have long been popular.

'The French have a taste for princes' - Why British royals are so popular in France

Perhaps the best known thing about French history is that they guillotined their own royals back in 1793. There were a couple of brief returns to monarchy, plus a self-crowned Emperor, but these days France is a firmly republican country.

But that doesn’t stop the French from showing huge interest in, and affection for, the royals on the other side of the English Channel.

In addition to fulsome tributes from president Emmanuel Macron and other high profile figures in France, the Union Jack was added to the flags outside the president’s Elysée Palace and the lights on the Eiffel Tower were turned off on Thursday night after the announcement of the death of the Queen, at the age of 96.

French TV channels on Thursday afternoon showed rolling news updates from the UK, while TV historian Stéphane Bern presented a specially recorded tribute programme to the Queen.

On Friday, three of France’s daily newspapers made the royal death their front page story, with Le Parisien using the headline Nous l’avons tant aimée (we loved her so much), Le Figaro saying L’adieu à la reine (farewell to the queen) and Libération opting for La peine d’angleterre (England’s pain, but also a pun on La reine d’angleterre).

But this wasn’t a one-time event sparked by the death of such a long-reigning and much-loved figure, royal fever frequently strikes France, especially during royal weddings. 

In 2021, 6 million people in France watched the funeral of Prince Phillip, 4 million watched the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the royal weddings of princes William and Harry attracted 9 and 8 million French viewers respectively.

Charles de Gaulle once remarked: “The French have a taste for princes, but they will always look abroad”.

French presidents, such as de Gaulle, are both the political leader of the country and the head of state, and have quite a few semi-monarchical trappings to the role, such as accommodation in the very grand Elysée Palace.

Emmanuel Macron, who began his presidency styling himself as an almost royal figure before being forced by public pressure to adopt a more down-to-earth governing style, called the French “a nation of regicidal monarchists” – yearning for a strong leader yet always keen to tear them down.  

One of his predecessors, François Mitterand, also remarked on this difficulty, reportedly saying in 1984: “I must be both Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth.”

Although the monarchy is far from an uncontroversial subject in the UK, where a significant portion of the population believe that the royals should have no official role, in France they are seen as a force for unity.

TV presenter Stéphane Bern, himself an ardent royalist, wrote a special essay in April 2022, to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. He said: “How can we explain this French infatuation with everything related to the British monarchy Nostalgia of the sans-culottes [French revolutionaries] for the monarchic splendor? Curiosity for this unchanging institution which is not afraid to conjugate secular rites in the present? Or a formidable symbolic force that gives hope to an entire people, who believe themselves invincible as long as the queen (or king) watches over them?

“How many events in our country are still capable of bringing crowds together, across political divides, religious beliefs or social affiliations? Apart from the football World Cup, when France wins, moments of national communion are rare and, even on July 14th [France’s Fête nationale] the principle of unity does not always prevail.

“If the British royal family is so popular in France, it is because it embodies the symbolic power capable of bringing together an entire people and of which we feel orphaned. The crown, which unites in diversity, seems to allow the British to find themselves and to commune around the timeless values of their nation.

“Unconsciously, there must be a kind of nostalgia, tinged with a sense of guilt, in this look of admiration and envy.”

French journalist Nicolas Domenach, speaking to The Local during the royal wedding celebrations in 2018, also emphasised the sense of unity, saying: “English royalty serves to maintain the unity of the country. It has immense symbolic power, but no concrete power.

“This monarchical permanence in a democracy fascinates us because we cut off the head of our king and our queen.

“We are proud to have accomplished our Revolution, but we maintain a nostalgia, if not a remorse.”