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Do French children get too much holiday?

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Do French children get too much holiday?
France has one of the shortest school years in the world. Photo by XAVIER LEOTY / AFP

It's an old debate in France that President Emmanuel Macron waded into - are French school holidays too long?

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In August 2023, as part of a wide-ranging interview in given to news magazine Le Point ahead of the new parliamentary session, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the issue of school holidays.

Specifically, he said that: "Pupils who have been assessed, and who need it, must be able to return as early as August 20th to allow them to catch up."

He also said his government intended to alter the exam timetable to "reclaim the month of June for pupils who don't take exams at the end of the year", adding more generally that there are "too many holidays" within the school year.

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Although his proposals seem modest, they have already sparked objections from teaching unions.

Here are the facts about French school holidays;

Holidays

French school pupils typically get a two-month holiday over the summer, with term ending in the first week of July and restarting on or shortly after September 1st. 

But although les grandes vacances are the biggest holidays, there are plenty of other breaks during the school year, pupils (and teachers) get a two-week break at: 

  • Toussaint (All Saints Day is on November 1st and the holidays usually encompass the final week in October and the first week of November)
  • Christmas
  • Winter holiday - usually in late February or early March, the exact dates vary according to the school holiday zone
  • Spring holidays - usually around Easter in April, these also vary according to the school holiday zone 

In total, schools spend 16 weeks a year on holiday and have 36 weeks of teaching time.

ANALYSIS Are French school holidays longer than other countries'?

This is one of the shortest school years in the world - the OECD average is 38 weeks and around a third of world's countries have a school year of 40 weeks or longer.

When it comes to the long summer holiday France is not particularly exceptional, many other countries have two-month holidays over the summer.

The difference lies in the length of the other holidays throughout the year - it is unusual to have two-week breaks so regularly, most countries only have a week-long break in the spring and winter.  

Likelihood of change

This was not the first time that Macron has suggested shortening school holidays, and many other politicians have brought up the idea in recent years and decades.

The plan might be popular with parents, many of whom struggle to organise childcare during the holidays - the average French worker gets six weeks of holiday per year, while children get 16 weeks. 

Unsurprisingly, the idea has consistently been less popular with French teaching unions.

Following the president's interview, unions began to list their objections - which ranged from inequality to climate change.

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Ghislaine David, General Secretary of SnuiPP, the largest teachers' union, told Le Parisien: "If he wants to rethink school holidays, let him do it for the whole year, not just for the summer.

"The real issues are the cumbersome curricula, the organisation of the school day and the school calendar, which has been tailored to the needs of tourism and winter sports professionals in particular, and not to the needs and rhythms of the child."

She added that an early return for pupils in difficulty would "deepen inequalities".

Sophie Vénétitay, General Secretary of the SNES, the leading union for collège and lycée teachers, said: "The proposal seems out of touch with current climatic conditions. Macron is making this announcement on August 23rd, when much of France is sweltering under a heatwave. How can we get students into schools that are not adapted to climate change?"

Elisabeth Allain-Moreno, General Secretary of the Syndicat des Enseignants de l'UNSA union told FranceInfo that any such debate should be the subject of a proper consultation exercise, adding: "Staff holidays are not pupils' holidays".

"You can't solve educational difficulties by welcoming pupils for much longer, without even knowing what they're going to be doing. The school is not there to welcome, keep, protect them from the outside world."

The proposal received a cautious welcome from some parents - Grégoire Ensel, president of the FCPE, the main parents' federation, said: "The question of summer holidays deserves a debate. Let's start by putting teachers back in front of pupils, by building a social project for schools, by setting a course."

'Crossing the Rubicon'

Not starting the school year before September has a symbolic importance - if September 1st happens to fall on a Tuesday or Wednesday then the school year will either start mid-week or on the following Monday, rather than return to school on August 30th or 31st.

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Claude Lelièvre, an education historian, said: "France has two weeks more vacation time than the average for comparable countries. Reducing the holiday duration therefore does not seem to be a nonsense, provided that summer vacations are trimmed and that this effectively serves to reduce the number of daily school hours, which are too high in the country, by spreading them out more over the week."

But he warned against "crossing the Rubicon on September 1st", which would be seen as a historic step backwards for teachers.

Teachers who come to give extra lessons to students in difficulty as early as August 20th would then have to be "heavily compensated" he added.

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