French make busiest piste a private function

PARIS DAYS

An eerie silence has fallen upon our apartment building, and the streets outside. The lift, previously as elusive as a waiter in a crowded cafe, remains obediently where you leave it for as much as 30 minutes at a time.

There are parking spaces on the street; there are empty lunch tables in restaurants as late as 12.45pm. The extremely noisy family in the flat below no longer complains to the gardienne about the noise made by our children running on the parquet floor.

It is, in short, the official Parisian two-week winter holiday. Not quite le tout Paris, but a sizable part of it, has departed to the slopes, or to their second residence; or to their in-laws "in the provinces".

The great summer escape from the capital is well known. It is a mark of shame for a Parisian of any means or social standing to be found in Paris in August, when the city is invaded by foreign tourists. The vacances d'hiver, starting only four weeks after the Christmas-New Year holidays finish, are not so rigorously observed but they are another of those mass events the French love, and love to complain about.

Peasant farmers in the Ardeche and the unemployed in the Pas de Calais will not be taking their skis to the Alps, or going to their residences secondaires. But, like it or not, their children are off school for two weeks and in some cases, receiving free, or cheap, ski holidays, subsidised by the state.

The school calendar for the entire country is designed, it seems, to suit the regimented social life cycle of the French bourgeoisie. But the school calendar, fixed nationally three years in advance, then becomes a kind of tyranny, which makes life even more regimented than is comfortable, or even tolerable. The whole situation is rather typiquement francais: logical planning to solve one problem causes a much worse problem.

The fashionable time to go skiing is in February because the French will not ski anywhere but in France and the best French skiing is reckoned to be in February. Since five weeks paid holiday is now the legal norm in France (more than any country except Germany), a two-week winter, or ski, break has been built into the school year.

Only a small minority of the French go skiing - just over 8 per cent. But since they all go at once, this means 5 million pairs of skis hit the slopes at the same. This makes for very crowded slopes.

Even if they do not go skiing, many other French people, almost one in three, go on holiday at this time, because the schools are closed. Very few (about 5 per cent) venture outside France. Mostly, they go to second homes or to relatives and friends in the country.

More than any other European country, the French spend all their holidays at home. This is a symptom of French insularity, if you like. But France is also the most popular holiday destination in the world. If this country, which has mountains, sunshine, good food, history, culture and unspoiled countryside, is popular with foreigners, why should it not also be popular with the French?

Benedicte, who lives two floors below us and is the only neighbour to have befriended us, cheerfully sums up her existence: "Paris is for school. As soon as there is no school we go into the provinces." Whenever her husband can, he goes too. Otherwise, every weekend and school-holiday, Benedicte packs up the car and the children and sets off to her mother- in-law's house in the Auvergne.

The French penchant for formation living is matched by an extreme attachment to privacy. Package tours are unpopular.At holiday time, they go off en masse to live very private lives.

The Ministry of Education decided three years ago that the timing of the winter holidays was causing a problem. The departure of tens of thousands of families to the slopes, or the countryside, when tens of thousands of others were making their normal weekend pilgrimages, was causing vast traffic jams on the autoroutes out of Paris and on the narrow roads leading to the best ski resorts.

Hence, a Cartesian solution was devised: start the school holidays on a Wednesday and end them on a Wednesday, to avoid big jams at the weekends. This year school in Paris ended at Wednesday lunchtime on 5 February and resumes next Wednesday morning on 19 February. Unfortunately, it occurred to no one that few parents would be allowed to start their holidays from work on a Wednesday. Also, no steps were taken to persuade the ski resorts to shift from the Saturday- to-Saturday pattern of letting everything from skis to boots to chalets. As a result, many people have been forced to squash two-week ski holidays into one, making the slopes even more crowded and threatening almighty jams on the roads today and tomorrow, instead of next weekend. The ski resorts complain they are losing business.

Today has been declared a "samedi rouge" by Bison Fute, the absurd cartoon Native American who is the symbol of road safety in France. It will be, in other words, a day of vast jams and maximum aggravation.

The noisy people in the flat below (who have never spoken to us but always complain through the gardienne) will be in a rare old mood when they get home. It may be a good time to book home clog-dancing courses for the children.

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