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With summer's end, France's annual 'fresh start' truly arrives

Why We Wrote This

French life does not match the calendar year. The annual cycle begins with the rentrée: literally “the return,” but colloquially the end of the summer holidays and nothing less than a national fresh start. 

Ludovic Marin/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron visits a secondary school in Laval, France, at the start of the school year on Sept. 3. Mr. Macron and his education minister were on hand to welcome students and their (voting) parents back to school.

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Suddenly, in France it’s not summer. Instead, this week marks the rentrée, which literally means “the return.” But when it refers to the end of the summer holidays, it signifies nothing less than a national fresh start. Because French life does not match the calendar year. The annual cycle begins with the rentrée. So the plumber you’ve been trying to reach for days rings you back on the first Monday in September. All the shops are open again. The fliers encouraging you to join a gym appear under car windshield wipers. There’s a new sense of purpose in the air. The rentrée scolaire – the new school year – is a big enough deal that President Emmanuel Macron made sure he was on hand at a provincial high school on Monday morning. Mr. Macron’s own rentrée politique is proving a little fraught this year, but if he has any time to read he has plenty of titles to choose from: the rentrée littéraire has unleashed a flood of new books. After the long summer holidays, the normal rhythms of French life have reasserted themselves.

Everyone comes home from their summer holidays. But no one comes home quite like the French.

There is even a special word for it – la rentrée – which at any other time of the year would simply mean “the return.” But this week, the first week of September, it signifies a key social phenomenon in France, a national fresh start.

Because the long summer vacation that lulled the whole country into a state of suspended animation is over. Come the end of August, everyone plugs themselves back in to the active rhythms of daily life. Suddenly, there is a charge in the atmosphere, and a new sense of purpose.

La rentrée – not the New Year – is the time for France’s good resolutions: on Monday night someone had stuck fliers under the windshield wipers of all the cars in my street advertising a local gym.

It’s also the time to get things done. I got a call from my building’s plumber on Monday morning. I had telephoned him twice in the middle of last week with an urgent request, but got no further than his answering machine. Only on the first Monday in September was he back at work and ready for action.

He was not alone. Around my neighborhood the cobbler, the hairdresser, the tailor, the baker, and the vegetable store took down the notes they had left saying “Back on 3rd September,” rolled up their shutters, and got down to business again.

Forty percent of French businesses close in August, many of them for the whole month. Even big companies, tied into global supply chains that pay no heed to French idiosyncrasies, work with skeletal work crews.

The length and depth of the summer calm, though, gives la rentrée added oomph, and nowhere is this clearer than at school. The rentrée scolaire is a big enough deal that President Emmanuel Macron and his education minister made sure they showed up at a provincial secondary school on Monday morning to welcome students and glad-hand their (voting) parents.

Mr. Macron has not made himself terribly popular with schoolkids: He pushed through a law earlier this year banning the use of mobile phones in schools from today onward. But another innovative government scheme launched this semester – to create a choir in every school by the start of the next school year – has drawn less fire.

The rentrée politique is more drawn out, and more complicated. After nearly three weeks at a 17th century fortress on the Mediterranean coast, Macron faces what political analyst Alain Duhamel describes as a rentrée incandescente. His high-profile and very popular environment minister has just resigned, accusing the government of using him to greenwash its agenda. And long-planned reforms to the way income tax is collected look as though they may be called off at the last minute because the system is not ready for them.

No such fate threatens the third dimension of the rentrée phenomenon, the rentrée littéraire, which takes up almost as much ink in the French press as the newly published books themselves.

So much is being made of the 567 novels being released this month, including 94 first novels, that one would think no other books saw the light of day in France at any other time of the year. In fact, more books are published in every month except September, but they do not attract anything like the same fanfare.

Why not? Because the big French literary prizes are awarded in the late autumn; to be in the running with a fresh book still generating buzz, you have to publish now, at the rentrée littéraire.

“The rentrée littéraire in September is aimed at the prize committees,” says Pierre Dutilleul, head of the French publishers’ association. “A Goncourt prize and the right buzz can sell half a million books,” especially in the run-up to Christmas, the top month for book sales, Mr. Dutilleul adds.

That can change an author’s life. Some of the other alterations made to mark the rentrée, allegedly in the spirit of innovation, are perhaps of less lasting import. TF1, the most watched TV channel in France, is very proud of the studio it has built for its national news programs, unveiled a week ago. The major novelty is that the presenter now sits to the right of the screen, instead of the left.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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