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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wednesdays in the Hexagon

Perhaps  you've followed some of the strident debates here in France over whether or not commerce in the Hexagon should be allowed to open on Sunday.  Yes, Sunday as a "day of rest" is something that is taken very seriously here and is a matter of national debate on the Left and the Right.  If you want start a conversation here in France, just ask someone what he or she thinks of "la généralisation du travail le dimanche" and you'll get an earful - everyone has an opinion.

But there is another day of the week that is a bit particular here and that's Wednesday.  What makes mercredi different in the Hexagon?

Well, to start, a lot of kids here don't go to school that day or only go for half a day.  When the Frenchlings were in maternelle (nursery school) they had Wednesday's off.  Later, when were living in Paris and they were going to elementary school, they had a half day on Wednesday and then a half day on Saturday.

Like many couples here, we were a dual income household, and the school schedule meant we had to scramble to find childcare for Wednesday. When the girls were at nursery school, they local school offered a kind of camp that would take them that day.  Later on we cobbled together a mix of paid care at the home of a local stay at home mother, in our home with a high school student who was available and finally at the apartment of their French grandmother in Paris who took them home and to catechism at her church in the 17th.  The last seems to be the preferred option for many.  I look out my kitchen window on Wednesday afternoon and chances are very good I will see my neighbors' grandson playing soccer with his Italian grandfather in the back yard.  He's a very nice child with impeccable manners.  No prompting necessary when he sees me, he knows to wave and sing out, "Bonjour Madame!"  Now that I think about it, this is generally true all over France - children have manners and are taught to be excruciatingly polite to adults.  Rather a refreshing change from the country I came from.

In my home country the school schedule was very different:  five days a week from Monday to Friday and the school day generally ended sometime in the afternoon.  So it took some getting used to on my part and in the early days I was very curious as to why exactly children got Wednesdays off.  The answer varied depending on who I asked.  My secular friends (those not affiliated with any religion) would just look at me like I was an idiot and answer, "Of course children can't go to school five days in a row.  It's too much for them.  For their general health and overall well-being, they must have a break."  
OK.

I got a very different answer from my fellow Catholic friends. "Oh," they said, "It's so children can go to catechism (religious instruction) that day."  And then they bolstered that argument with the same argument as the secular folks that children were too fragile to study five days in a row.

Where did this custom come from?

Turns out that my fellow Catholics were basically correct,  only the original day set aside for religious instruction was Thursday.  La Croix says:
Claude Lelièvre, historien de l’éducation et professeur émérite à la Sorbonne, explique, dans son ouvrage Les Politiques scolaires mises en examen, qu’à l’origine, le choix d’un jour chômé au milieu de la semaine répondait à une raison religieuse. En 1882, les autorités avaient adopté le jeudi qui était traditionnellement le jour de congé fixé par les Frères des Écoles chrétiennes, une congrégation très influente dans le monde éducatif. L’article 2 de la loi du 28 mars 1882 sur la laïcité de l’École publique disposait que « les écoles primaires vaquer(aient) un jour par semaine », de manière à permettre aux parents qui le souhaitaient de délivrer à leurs enfants « l’instruction religieuse en dehors des édifices scolaires ».

("Claude Lelièvre, an education historian and professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, explains in his work Les Politiques scolaires mises en examen, that originally the selection of a day off in the middle of the week was for a religious purpose. In 1882, the authorities chose Thursday which was traditionally a day off set by the Brothers of Christian Schools, a congregation that was very influential in education. Article 2 of the law of March 28, 1882 on the secularization of the public school called for 'the primary schools to liberate one day a week' in order to accommodate parents who wished to have their children attend 'religious instruction outside the school.'")
Liberating that day was a compromise because the way I read the above paragraph religious instruction was originally available in the public school itself and when it was removed (separation of church and state)  Catholic parents and the Church still had enough clout to insist that Catholic children would at least have the opportunity during the week to attend catechism elsewhere.

In 1972 the only thing that changed in this arrangement was that the state moved the day off to Wednesday.  In any case it didn't make much difference for most families at that time.  In the early 1970's in France only about half the women worked or were looking for work.  Among my friends who are retired now, most of the women I know either never worked outside the home or worked part-time or in some sort of family business which gave them flexible hours and meant they could be home when the children weren't at school.  That's changed to a certain extent and I recommend this INSEE report that traces the evolution of workforce participation by French women since the 1980's.  

Clearly, the organization of school hours has an impact on families today.  It favors the traditional family and accommodates religious practices.  It encourages part-time work for women or work in sectors where women are the majority like primary education or secretarial work.  Of all the people I know who work four days a week and take Wednesdays off, I cannot find one man who does this.  (Perhaps they exist and my social circle is simply too small to include the stay-at-home guys.  So, if you take exception to this generalization, please don't hesitate to correct me.)  This is why on Wednesdays when I go into the center of town, the sidewalks are filled with women and their children going to the market or just talking a walk and burning off some of that young energy.  

Like the rules about Sunday being a day of rest, what was once a custom grounded in religion has been continued for reasons that are ostensibly secular.  I am not arguing that this is bad or that there is something wrong with the French system.  On the contrary, being a rather conservative individual, I am disposed to like this kind of thing since it is the antithesis of hasty reform, radical innovation, and throwing out the cultural baby with the religious bathwater in the name of "progress".

I will admit however that there are advantages and disadvantages to arranging the work/school week in this manner and I lived both.  As a dual-income family, it was not easy to cobble together childcare - all the more because our profession, information technology, wasn't (and still isn't) favorable to part-time work.  As a Catholic, I liked the fact that my children were able to attend catechism and spend time with their grandmother.  It is inconvenient to have the shops all closed on Sunday but I wouldn't want to be forced to work part of the weekend and I don't see why anyone else should be pressured into it either.

It is nice to live in a world that restricts commerce to particular days of the week, does not think that work is the end all and be all of one's existence, and takes particular care for children and puts their well-being on the top of society's agenda.  Not all worlds do this and that doesn't make them wrong and the French right but I find that it suits me quite well since it corresponds to values that I've come to embrace.

Which makes me something of a cultural convert, doesn't it?  These are not the values I grew up with in North America (or at least these values are not raised to the level of national importance and are usually left to the private domain of individuals and their families).  Speaking to my compatriots and members of other diasporas I come across, there seems to be a consensus that these thing make France a bit different but in a good way.  

Something that might, perhaps, reassure the French nation that their values are attractive and give them ammunition to resist the ignorant chiding of other nations to change their ways.  I take particular exception to the conservative faction in the US which is hardly being "conservative" when they call on the Hexagon to cast aside centuries of common values in the name of improving their economy.  Since when do conservatives call for economic considerations to trump all other values?  In my eyes these people are not conservatives at all but dangerous radicals out to remake society whatever the cost.  This makes them them nearly indistinguishable from American "progressives" - they just have a different idea about which direction change should go in and from where I sit, their vision leads directly to worshipping before the altar of the almighty dollar (or Euro, if you prefer).   

So, pay them no mind, mes amis. I certainly don't.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear!
Great post Victoria. It so eloquently reflects my feelings. We have a quality of life - a "douce France" - and I worry that it is slowly but surely disappearing into the globalization black hole.
The USA is a fine nation, but that doesn't mean that American culture and values should be "copie/collé" to the 191 other nations that share this planet.

Catherine said...

While I don't live in France, I find your post fascinating. It feels like everything in Canada is now designed around the idea of a dual income family. That's okay, but it does make me wonder - when did we need to have two incomes to survive financially, when before it was only one? Anyhow, that's a whole other conversation... But what an interesting post/perspective you've shared. Thanks!

Christophe said...

Wow, you keep impressing me, Victoria. You even taught me about Claude Lelièvre and the orginal Thursdays.
I remember my lecons de catechisme on Wednesdays.

I was surprised of the school days in the US, which I think is not too adapted to kid's well being. I think starting school at 7:45am is quite early. My oldest son, who is in 1st grade has lunch at 10:15am and his lunch break is somewhat short when compared to France! And school ends very early at 2:45pm.
My wife argues that the children' attention spam is better in the morning. Plus my children wake up really early in the morning (6am), so starting school at 7:45 is not necessary that early for them.
I wouln'd say that it is better suited to a dual income household. When kids get off that early in the afternoon, you need some after school care.
Yes, it's true that they work 5 straight days, and it can be tiring. A break in the middle would certainly help.
As for working all the time, things might be changing a bit in the US. There is starting to be some outrage about some store's opening hours for Thanksgiving. As for respecting Sunday's rest, it depends on the stores. Some stores like Ace Hardware and Hobby Lobby I think are closed on Sunday for family and workship reasons. But it is definitely not widespread like in France.
Thanks for a great post.

Celia said...

funny, french living in the US, I do not understand why stores should be closed Sunday or even at 6pm... How will I survive! When I was living in Paris, La Poste was open until 8pm, SuperG until 10pm, it was so great for someone like me working 12hours a day. For school, I d not get the US system, seems they start too early and finish too early, but I do not have kids so...

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, I agree wholeheartedly. Where we have to be care is distinguishing between wholesale Americanization/globalization and the natural evolution of culture. All cultures change over time and France is like any other place in that respect. Perhaps it's just because I lived in both places but I see a lot of Japanese influence here in France. The two get along very well and seem to have a lot of admiration for each other. Borrowing just seems natural and right. But I don't see the Japanese telling the French "be like us or suffer the consequences."

@Catherine, That's a very good question. I think what makes it easier in France to survive on one income (and I know quite a few couples who do this) is that there isn't the constant barrage of commerce. There are no ads in the schools, no assault on the senses as one walks down the street saying "guy this" and even the big chains like McDonalds have to keep their shops and signs discreet. I'm still amazed at how much money we do not spend, my spouse and I, here and how that changes when we hit North America.

@christophe, The fun of being a migrant (ora part anyway) is finding stuff out - especially stuff that the natives take for granted. :-)
I see what you mean about the 5 day a week not being necessarily better for families. In elementary school we got out at around 3 PM which meant, of course, that my mother had to make arrangement for childcare so she could work. Her solutions were very similar to what we did in France: local stay at home moms and the like.

@celia, I have the same reaction in the US. If I show up at a shop and it's closed, it bother me. Here, I show up, it's closed and I just shrug and note when it will be open. The pharmacy, for example, closes for 2 hours for lunch. The small bookstore closes whenever the owner feels like taking a day off and the tobacco store owners take a few weeks off in summer. :-)

Anonymous said...


Do you remember the patchwork of daycare that you and your brother received because I was working and the US does not have a good handle on providing competent daycare options for working parents. I perceive the problem to be political - In the US we have political factions that would have us believe that mom belongs at home. This fantasy continues to operate in the face of considerable economic pressure that has created the two job family. While some of us were pursuing a career many of the woman are working in low compensation jobs to keep bread on the table. Not much joy or career advancement there. To spice things up for working parents we continue to have Parent Teacher conferences and teacher training days added for an additional challenge for the working parents. But the catch as catch can American daycare arrangements do provided good entertainment at the family dinner table as adult child talk about what really went on at day-care when the parents weren't around. Often nothing terrible shocking just not quite as it was presented to the fee paying parents.