As the mercury rose in Paris, there was one big question on everyone’s lips – and it was unrelated to drought, wildfires, riots, Olympic planning or Macron’s presidency. It was the time of year to ask everyone you know where they were about to go on holiday.
I heard and overheard L’Île-d’Yeu, Dordogne, Corsica, Bourgogne, Marseille, Bordeaux, Le sud (the south), and Brittany. The man who owns the coffee shop told me he was going to western Ireland. “I’ve never been to Ireland,” he told me with a big grin on his face.
I work in Paris and – you might not want to hear this – full-time staff get 52 days leave a year. And so every August, the combination of enormous holiday allowances and the prospect of extreme heat and hordes of tourists pushes many Parisians out of the city.
The less touristy parts of Paris become notably quieter. My local bar closes for two weeks; my favourite Vietnamese restaurant shuts down for a month. So too do the grocer and the bakery.
But alas, I am not yet a full-time employee, which meant I was not going anywhere – at least, anywhere too far. To make up for it, on the Bastille weekend in mid-July my partner and I drew a circle around Paris showing how far you could drive in three hours, and hired the cheapest Airbnb we could find.
We ended up in the Ardennes, where we crossed the border into Belgium, hiked over a hill called the Giant’s Tomb, and celebrated our ascent with some local beer. This was followed by a modest firework display back in the village. On day two, the rain sent us to Luxembourg, where we took in some history and stumbled upon a city-wide jazz festival. On our final day, we floated down the Meuse River near Sedan.
Other French holidaymakers had come from all over the country. Along the river banks, les campings – campsites – were filling up with families.
Of course, the luxury of holidaying is not universal in France. Many people cannot afford to stop working, and spend the holiday season in the intense city heat.
This is, in particular, the case in the outskirts of France’s les banlieues – major cities – where unemployment is high and people often find themselves with low wages and limited benefits. I can see it in the neighbourhood of Montreuil, where I live. In contrast to the rest of the emptied-out city, the park is still thronging with people from the large neighbouring housing estate.
The darker side of the summer break is that it exacerbates inequality. This is part of the reason Emmanuel Macron has made renewed efforts to shorten the school holidays. The president said in June that the children of well-off families are sent to “language camps” while poorer children are left in areas with “little infrastructure, in families that are already facing problems”.
Over half of the rioters arrested in France after the police shooting of Nahel Merzouk were under 18 years old. A large share of these young people have little to do over the summer while their parents try to put food on the table.
Meanwhile, I’m in Paris for the long hot summer. The coffee shop is closed – the barista is in Ireland now. The local library is operating on an “exceptional schedule”, which means it’s closed Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
But at least I will not have to compete for a seat or stand in another man’s sweaty armpit on the metro for the next few weeks. When it’s this hot, and half the city is away on holiday, that’s a small consolation, at least.