Whilst the UK has eight public holidays, and the USA seven, France has eleven national public holidays a year. These fall whenever they fall according to the actual date and if they happen to fall on a weekend, an extra day may be given to employees in compensation, but this is not obligatory. What usually happens is that if the holiday falls on a Sunday the Monday is taken off, but if it falls on a Saturday that is hard cheese.
When a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, many people take a long weekend (which is called faire le pont – literally, to make a bridge). The only statutory (paid) public holiday in France is 1st May. In French a public holiday is a jour férié, and if a day is a holiday you may be told c’est férié!
Here is the list of French public holidays:
• 1st January – New Year’s Day (Jour de l’An)
• Easter Monday (Lundi de Pâques)
• 1st May – Labour Day (Fête du Travail)
• 8th May – VE Day – (Fête de la Victoire 1945)
• May (40 days after Easter, always on a Thursday) – Ascension Day (l’Ascension)
• May/June (50 days after Easter, always on a Monday) – Whit Monday (Lundi de Pentecôte)
• 14th July – Bastille Day (Fête Nationale)
• 15th August – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (l’Assomption)
• 1st November – All Saints’ Day (La Toussaint)
• 11th November – Armistice Day (Armistice 1918)
• 25th December – Christmas Day (Noël)
It’s worth knowing about these holidays because shops or businesses might well be closed. Some businesses will close for a long 4-day weekend if there is a pont (bridge), meaning the holiday falls on a Thursday or Tuesday. This does not apply to bigger businesses like supermarkets or to essentials like bakeries. May is a particularly difficult month in France with sometimes as many as four public holidays in the month!
Happily, in Provence restaurants tend to be open on a public holiday.
Here is a brief description of those French public holidays that you might not know about:
1st May – Labour day – in France people give each other sprigs or pots of Lilly of the Valley to bring them luck, a tradition dating back to 1560.
May – Ascension Day – forty days after Easter, this Christian festival celebrates Jesus’s ascent to heaven. It always takes place on a Thursday so people normally take a long weekend (faire le pont).
France’s national holiday (Bastille Day) on 14th July celebrates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, a turning point in the French Revolution. Villages and towns throughout France hold celebrations on either the evening of 13th or on the 14th July each year, with fireworks and communal feasting.
15th August – Assumption Day is a Christian festival celebrating God taking Mary into heaven. It also marks a break in the French summer holidays and many French return home on or around the 15th August. If you possibly can, avoid the roads on or around the 15th of August if it falls on or near a weekend.
1st November – All Saints Day. As the name suggests, this is a celebration of all the Saints. It’s also a celebration of the dead and you’ll notice the cemeteries are bright with pots of chrysanthemums on freshly tidied tombs. This tradition dates from 1919 when the President Raymond Poincaré requested that soldiers’ tombs be decorated with flowers. Chrysanthemums are not only one of the few flowers in bloom in the autumn but they’re also resistant to cold weather and so, naturally, they became the flower of choice to decorate tombs. Consequently you should never give a pot of chrysanthemums to someone as a gift, as they really are associated with the dead.
In addition, not at all holidays, but Mother’s Day is marked on the last Sunday in May, and Father’s Day on the third Sunday in June.