No matter what, the French take good vacations

Brigitte Bardot and her friends aren't feeling this country's economic squeeze just yet. The actress lives in a sumptuous villa nestled among the hills here above the Mediterranean. In the chichi seaside village below, yachts pack the port and tourists the boutiques.

Bardot herself avoids the throng. No longer making films, she limits her public appearances these days to charity occasions for her favorite cause, animal protection. She rarely ventures into town.

But Bardot remains the symbol of a type of good life few Frenchmen once dared to dream about - and more and more are now coming to expect.

When Bardot came here 30 years ago, St. Tropez was a quaint Mediterranean fishing villiage. The actress's cult of youth and sensuality shook the older generation and turned the town into a pilgrimage site for this new religion of glamour.

St. Tropez is no longer shocking. Its streets reek of the wealth of a manicured upper middle class. Art galleries and pizzarias are equally slick, stylized, Upper West Side New York.

The rebellious youth seems to have disappeared, tamed like Bardot into withdrawing behind villa walls. All ages now gather here, and even before the summer season, the narrow streets and rocky beaches are mobbed.

The place is so popular that the mayor spends much of his time resisting calls to widen the town's antiquated access road. St. Tropez can't handle heavier crowds, he explains.

Boaters in the port have the same complaint. Some leave their yachts docked all summer. If they sailed, they would never get their space back, skipper Andre Renilleux explained.

''Everybody comes here now to be seen,'' he says with disgust. ''These days, I guess everybody thinks they're special.''

The French mania for St. Tropez-style leisure has been fueled in part by President Francois Mitterrand. Of course, last year his currency restrictions made foreign travel next to impossible. But the restraints have been lifted, and Mitterrand has not reneged on his decree increasing minimum vacation time from four to five weeks.

He restored the May 8 holiday celebrating the end of World War II. His predecessor had canceled it for the sake of efficiency.

That last action is significant. This spring, it meant Frenchmen had three consecutive long weekends to, as the saying goes, ''faire le pont,'' literally to make the bridge.

First came the four-day Easter weekend. The following week was the traditional workers' holiday, May 1, which because it fell on a Tuesday called for taking Monday off. And finally, the May 8 gift.

Don't get the wrong impression, though. The French do work. Germans, reputed for their industriousness, take more time off for vacations. Moreover, while striking unions in Germany are pressuring to cut the workweek to 35 hours, Mitterrand's promise to do the same has quietly been forgotten.

Still, the French have a peculiar obsession with holidays. They talk about them constantly. It is considered almost shameful to stay in the city on a long weekend, and positively abhorrent not to go to the countryside in the big holiday month, August.

Some sociologists see this urge to get away as a reaction to the urbanization and a desire to compensate for the desertion of rural traditions. Judging by the number of Parisians who escape to ''grande-mere's'' villa in the Dordogne or ''tante's'' farmhouse in Burgundy, the hypothesis contains much logic.

But the new moneyed wanderlust of the growing white-collar middle-class that flocks to St. Tropez, not to mention the ubiquitous Club Meds, shows vacation styles are changing. The only constant is the continuing fixation on holidays, a fixation that has led some to mock Mitterrand for not making his victory, May 10 , another day off.

''Why, that lazy bum,'' cartoonist Jacques Faizant joked. ''With May 10, we could 'faire le pont' on Wednesday and have an entire week off.''

All this holidaymaking reveals the moral of the story.

As the economy feels the squeeze of government austerity, many Frenchmen are losing their jobs. Most with jobs are also hurting, their purchasing power decreasing for the second straight year. Anger has boiled over into the streets with demonstration after demonstration.

Before World War II only the well-to-do took long holidays. Today, almost all wage earners do, and they are still taking these vacations, cutting back if necessary, but not cutting them out.

''We had more skiers than ever this year, but many came for five days instead of seven and went out to restaurants three times instead of five,'' reported Jean Cornut, tourist director of the Meribel Resort. He expects the same situation through the summer months.

At St. Tropez, the story is much the same. Yachters talk freely about how difficult it is to make ends meet.Nevertheless, they insist they will not skimp on their outings.

''I'm scared, all right,'' skipper Andre says. ''But you can't worry all the time. This summer, I'll be out here almost every weekend.''

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