No, this is not a post about vacationing in France. I'm just not competent to talk about it since the last time I came here as a tourist I was 22 years old. I am now close to middle-age and have lived here for nearly 20 years. You do the math. These days "getting away from it all" means leaving France for other exciting locales like Belgium (or Brittany).
Here's a secret: The best part of the long summer vacations in France (if you live here) is watching all your neighbors and co-workers leave so that you can have the city, the public transportation, the roads, the parks, and the apartment complex all to yourself. Splendid isolation. Peace and quiet. Not having to stand up on the train/metro/tramway. No lines at the store. For a few short weeks the morning commute into Paris becomes bearable. Only downside is that your favorite bar is likely to close for two weeks and you'll have to get your morning libation and tobacco somewhere else.
Are there other downsides? Talking to people outside of France, folks sure seemed to be looking for them. When I was working internationally for French multi-nationals and I would go out for a beer with the local teams after a long day of meetings, I would inevitably get all kinds of questions which I tried to answer to the best of my ability (which varied according to my level of sobriety). Here are a few of them and my stone-cold sober responses:
With so much vacation how do you get anything done at work? (The productivity question.)
Does productivity suffer? Not that I've noticed and I have empirical evidence to back that observation up. You can find different statistics and country rankings on the Net but in all of them the French hold their own quite nicely. Call it another "French Paradox" if you like, though there is nothing paradoxical about it at all when you think seriously about it. Putting in more effort, working more hours, and having less vacation does not necessarily translate into higher productivity. As James Ling put it, "Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done." The French get things done.
How does a French manager and her teams cope when people leave for 2-3 weeks at a time? (The organization question.)
It's called a spreadsheet. Team members let the manager know ahead of time when they would like to take summer vacation (July or August) and then it's up to you, the manager, to work it out. Not too tough and, if I may be a little cheeky here, it's what you're paid for. In one place I worked I had an international team spread across Asia, North America and Europe. A little more complex but still entirely manageable by someone with an IQ greater than her shoe size. We set up a shared spreadsheet with all the national holidays for each country and let team members fill in their vacation days. It was my job to have a look at it from time to time to be sure we had everything covered (those regional datacenters did not run themselves). A little perspective here. We had team members on that spreadsheet whose countries had labor laws giving them as many (if not more) days off (vacation and national holidays combined) than France. It wasn't a problem and I never ever had to intervene anywhere to work out a scheduling issue due to people taking vacation.
Isn't it a pain to have the stores and shops closed for weeks at a time? (The inconvenience question.)
Oh, we muddle through quite nicely. The little shop down the street (the librairie) where you like to buy office and school supplies, or your favorite bakery (boulangerie) with those scrumptious baguettes, usually puts a note up beforehand on the door so you know when they'll be closed. And then you just work around it. Do you really need those staples now? Is it such a hardship to make do with another bakery a little farther down the street? And all the essential stuff is covered: the doctors find temporary replacements, one pharmacy in town always stays open, and there is always at least one bar/bistro doing a brisk business for those who really really really need a drink after work.
Isn't 5+ weeks of vacation a bit over-generous in this day and age and isn't it a bit cheeky of the French to have so much time off when much of the rest of the world doesn't have that luxury? (The morality question.)
Ah, now we are getting somewhere. Deep in the hearts of those who "tisk tisk" because the French have so much vacation, is (dare I say it?) envy and sense that there is something unfair about it all. Come on, folks, that's just petty, and those who ask this question are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. There are people in this world who work 7 days a week. Do these people find something morally objectionable about the fact that you probably live in a country where you have Saturday or Sunday (or both) off? Does having your weekends to yourself make you lazy? It's all relative.
How work is organized in different countries is a function of several factors: culture, economics, and the political and legal systems. You need to look a lot closer than just X days of vacation and official work hours to be able to say something intelligent about how work and leisure time are allocated. The French have a system that works for them, they (we) like it, and they've organized themselves in a way that suits them best. Other people in other countries do the same.
An example? Well, when I was running that multi-national team, it did not escape my notice that our U.S. offices were pretty much deserted after 5:00 in the late afternoon. The majority of our American and Canadian employees worked strictly from 8 AM to 5 PM and not a minute more unless they were getting overtime. Nothing wrong with that - the North Americans had softball games, aerobics classes and other things to attend and they liked getting home early enough every day to spend time with their families. In the French offices most of the teams were still there at 7 or 8 PM and they were not getting any overtime. They liked spending time with their families just as much, but they preferred large blocks of time (days or weeks) as opposed to little chunks (hours) every day. Fair enough and to imply that any of these people were "slacking off' is just ridiculous.
Do you have anything negative to say about French vacations? (The "It's too good to be true" question.)
Yes, the fact that I had to answer all these questions and vigorously defend the honor of my French teams, when all I really wanted to do was to enjoy the end of a long day by people watching in a working man's bar in Tokyo. So much for my leisure time. :-)