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Bill de Blasio: The man who dared to go on holiday

Out of America: New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir

Can't an American politician have a holiday in peace – or, for that matter, can he have a holiday at all? Such are the thoughts prompted by the hullabaloo, in the New York media at least, over last week's family vacation of the city's mayor, Bill de Blasio, in Italy, the land of his maternal grandparents.

The trip lasted a mere eight days, but has provided some wonderful copy. "Hizzonor" appears to have been made an honorary citizen of various small towns and villages in the south of the country whence his forebears came, in what were billed to the trailing reporters from New York as "ancestral homeland events".

No detail has been left uncovered, from the "political" side of the De Blasio holiday, including a meeting with his opposite number in Rome, to the menu he enjoyed in Sant'Agata de' Goti, birthplace of his grandfather (black pork, ricotta cheese and pear cake according to The New York Times), at a lunch that lasted three hours, a concept unimaginable in the US. The mayor was clearly having a splendid time. But that merely fuelled the carping.

Back home, he was criticised for being observed eating pizza with a fork, apparently the ultimate sin in the Big Apple. He was chastised for visiting Capri: what is a self-proclaimed champion of the poor and underprivileged doing in the opulent, decadent haunt of celebrities, from the emperor Tiberius to Jackie Onassis? And, come to think of it, what's De Blasio doing taking a holiday in the first place?

New York mayors and holidays have always had an uneasy relationship. His predecessor, the zillionaire Michael Bloomberg, would get into trouble when he slipped off on his private jet to one of his various mansions scattered about the planet. Rudy Giuliani, the mayor before that, never seemed to be away – though he spent an unconscionable amount of time attending New York Yankees games.

True to form, the Republican Giuliani lost no time in getting the knife into Democrat De Blasio about his foreign jaunt, which might have coincided with a strike by workers on the Long Island Rail Road. "He shouldn't be going with the threat of a commuter rail strike looming," Giuliani complained. In the event, the dispute was settled, thanks to the good offices of the state governor, Andrew Cuomo. You have to wonder: has no one heard of delegation or of De Gaulle's dictum, that graveyards are full of indispensable people?

However, if the De Blasio "holiday" is a big deal, consider the presidential vacation. In Europe, no problem. Harold Wilson used to potter off to the Scillies, Margaret Thatcher went to the Austrian Alps and Tony Blair sojourned in Tuscany and the Caribbean – and apart from some tut-tutting over the last named's free-loading off wealthy friends, they were pretty much left to get on with it. Not so the occupants of the White House.

Take Obama, "doing a Blair" and planning a summer break at a villa outside Florence. The very notion is unthinkable. "Isn't there anywhere in the US good enough for you?" his critics would instantly ask, practically accusing him of treason. At a more humdrum level, such a presidential stay would tie up swathes of Tuscany for weeks, what with advance trips by the Secret Service, motorcades, no-fly zones and, of course, the obligatory White House press corps, scouring the land for the tiniest scraps of news to justify their presence.

Needless to say, presidential holidays cannot be divorced from political image-making. They are delicately calibrated affairs: you must be seen as a "regular guy", but not strain credulity in the process. It's fine for George W Bush to clear brush at his Texas ranch, or for Obama to take down time in Hawaii. Both could be portrayed as going home, reverting to their roots, doing what comes naturally.

Others are less successful. I remember a Bill Clinton family holiday in the Rockies during his first term. Few were fooled by the gregarious, compulsively involved Clinton seeking inner peace by hiking in the mountains. Soon he reverted to a more natural habitat – the chic Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, favoured summer refuge of the liberal chattering classes.

In a way, though, America's politicians are fortunate. They get paid vacations. Astonishingly, a quarter of their fellow citizens still do not, even though they are working harder than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee in the US now works 160 hours, or the equivalent of four weeks, more than he or she did in 1976.

Here, there is no statutory obligation for companies to offer paid holiday time. Last year, the Florida Congressman Alan Grayson introduced a Paid Vacation Act, requiring employers to provide one week of paid holiday. When last heard of, the measure had been referred to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections and there, presumably, it gently rots.

The partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill doubtless partly explains failure to act. But other factors, one suspects, are at work: the country's deep-rooted and persisting Puritan ethic, dating back to the Founding Fathers, as well as the historical mismatch between capital and labour in America, reflected today by ever-growing disparities of wealth and ever-weakening unions.

For most of the 20th century (aka the "American Century"), this did not much matter. The US could disdainfully look down on effete, nanny-state Europe, land of obstreperous unions and the three-hour lunch, and bask in its own superiority. These days, that is not so easy. How is it that Germany, where six weeks' paid holiday is the norm and workers and bosses actually co-operate, far outperforms not just most of Europe, but the US as well?

Today, Bill de Blasio returns to the great city of New York, which, by all accounts, has survived in his absence. The trip, he told The Wall Street Journal, "will send me back really energised…. It's really worked out beautifully". If only every American could say the same.