French shun a day's work in the name of solidarity

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To the words "liberty, equality, fraternity", the official values of France, can now be unofficially added: "selfishness".

To the words "liberty, equality, fraternity", the official values of France, can now be unofficially added: "selfishness".

Today's Pentecost bank holiday ­ was supposed to be a "day of solidarity" in which millions of French people worked for no extra pay. The money raised ­ ¤2bn (£1.4bn) ­ was to be invested in services for old people and the handicapped.

The aim was to avoid a repeat of the calamity ­ and national shame ­ during the August heatwave two years ago when 15,000, mostly old, people died. They died, many of them alone in their homes, because the nation was on holiday, their relatives were away and hospitals and old people's homes were under-staffed.

Two years' later, today's "day of solidarity" for the old and handicapped ­ declared by law ­ looks likely to become a day of chaos and mutual recrimination. Hundreds of thousands of French people, while verbally supporting "solidarity" with old people, intend to take the Pentecost holiday by one means or another.

Unions for teachers, and workers in railways, national and local government offices and public transport in Paris and 89 other cities, have called for a strike.Many left-wing town halls have declared a day off.

Some large private companies have given their employees a day off and will pay the "solidarity" charge from their profits. Others will close but deduct one day from the stock of "rest days" accumulated by employees by way of the 35-hour working week.

A left-wing parents' organisation has urged its members not to send their children to school. So some schools will have classes without teachers; others will have teachers without classes. And some will have teachers and pupils, but no one in the canteen to make lunch.

Overall, according to a poll for the newspaper Ouest-France, 55 per cent of French people intend to take a day off work today.

Adding insult to injury, from the government's point of view, the discord stirred by the "day of solidarity" is blamed for a sudden plunge in support for the proposed EU constitution, a fortnight before France votes in a referendum on it.

A poll conducted last week, published yesterday by the Journal du Dimanche and Wanadoo-Actu, put the "no" campaign ahead by 54 per cent to 46 per cent. This followed a series of polls showing the "yes" camp pulling slightly ahead or neck-and-neck with the "no".

The polling organisation IFOP blamed the slump in the "yes" vote on discontent with the loss of the Pentecost holiday and anger at the way that the issue had been handled by the centre-right Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

From the start, the idea was pilloried by unions as an interference with "acquired social rights" or a blow to local Pentecost traditions. M. Raffarin, borrowing an idea introduced without fuss in Germany in 1995, wanted to raise money for old people without raising the already crippling tax burden. He suggested that everyone give up a day off without extra pay and that the increase in output should be placed in a special fund through a levy on employers.

For all the talk of solidarity and fraternity which colours political debate in France, the row over the Pentecost holiday exposes a less appealing reality. It points to the difficulty of imposing reform in France. Even an idea which everyone supports runs into the entrenched selfishness of the "acquired rights" of groups.

Pentecost is not a religious holiday. It was introduced in the 1880s to help banks which needed an extra day of financial stock-taking.

God, in any case, seems to be on the side of the government. The weather forecast for today is appalling.