France stumbles through an optional holiday

A three-day weekend was officially revoked - or was it? A nation confused about a day off.

The French take their state seriously - so seriously that they always spell their word for it, 'Etat', with a capital E. So it comes as all the more of a shock when the revered French state shows signs of deliquescence. Those signs were on display Monday.

It seems unfair, perhaps, to mention France in the same breath as Somalia, a failed state par excellence. On the other hand, what do you call a state that lacks enough authority to set a public holiday? France.

Half the country worked Monday. Half the country did not. Most government offices ignored the government decree abolishing the three-day Pentecost weekend, and in the private sector 1 firm in 2 gave employees the day off, too. The result was total confusion.

This farce began with a tragedy. In the summer of 2003, a heat wave and official indifference and incompetence killed an estimated 15,000 elderly in France. To raise more money to care for seniors, and to assuage the country's sense of guilt, the prime minister announced an annual "day of solidarity." Everybody would work on Pentecost Monday - formerly a holiday - but nobody would be paid, and the proceeds would go into a special fund.

Everybody loved the idea in principle. Few liked it when they realized its practical implications. Union leaders muttered about "forced labor." Roman Catholic church elders lamented the lack of respect for Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost descended upon Christ's disciples.

Towns in southwestern France, whose Pentecost long-weekend bullfight fiestas are the high point of their year, screamed about the loss of tourist revenues. And everyone remembered, on reflection, how pleasant it is to take three days off in early summer.

The grumbling rattled the government, and it backed off. For 18 months it bickered with unions and employers and eventually came up with a ruling that nobody really understands, allowing managers to make their own minds up about whether Pentecost Monday is a holiday or not. The hope is that one way or another, the state will end up with an extra 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) a year to spend on old people.

On Monday, however, it was a mess. My newspapers arrived, but my mail didn't. My children had no school, but their teachers were sent on a special training day course. The pharmacy was open, but the dry cleaners were closed. Government ministries opened, but secretaries had the day off.

Businesses that opened could neither make deliveries nor take them, because truckers were banned from the roads. Parisians had no clue when their bus or metro would arrive: The public transport company had declared Monday "a working holiday."

It is hard to square all this with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's declaration Monday that the "day of solidarity" represents "a revolution in public attitudes" (although he did acknowledge also certain "incoherencies" in applying it). The authorities have done little to explain just what the day is meant to achieve or how.

One traveling salesman stopped for a coffee in between clients (who might or might not have been at their desks).

"I can't tell you how happy I am to be working today," he told the barista, his voice dripping with irony. But he added, "At least the traffic is manageable today."

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