Paris Stories: Staying away from work is a full-time job

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The Independent Online

Arriving by train in the Gare Saint-Lazare from Normandy early last Monday morning, I found that the city was empty. Or almost so. As quiet as a Sunday, in any case. Where was everyone? Had I overslept by 48 hours? Was it already the 14 July holiday? Had George Bush dropped a neutron bomb, removing all the Parisians and making the city safe for American tourists? Within a few minutes, the truth dawned. Tens of thousands of office-working Parisians had not yet come back from their weekend in the country. Most would probably not come back until Thursday, using two "rest days" to create a pont or bridge, between the weekend and the 14 July bank holiday. Some would probably take further rest days on Thursday and Friday, constructing a viaduc from one weekend to another.

Bridge-building of this kind is a tradition in France, but the mandatory 35-hour week, introduced by the last Socialist-led government, has created opportunities for recreational civil engineering on a grand scale.

In white-collar professions in particular - including the civil service - the 35-hour week is not literal but spread over the whole year. Employees can take extra days off to bring their average weekly working time down to 35 hours. These days have come to be known as jours r-t-t (for Réduction du Temps de Travail). You often hear people say: "Je vais prendre mes air-tay-tays" (I am going to take my r-t-ts). After only five years of existence, they have become an entrenched part of French social rights and even of the highly protected French language.

The ambitious finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been muttering darkly about abolishing or radically reforming the 35-hour week which, he says, places a ball and chain on the French economy. But he is a clever man. He knows he might as well try to abolish Christmas.

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The streets here, and the interior of the Sorbonne, have been used this month to film a re-make of The Pink Panther, the 1963 classic film comedy, which gave the world Inspecteur Clouseau

- and Peter Sellers's memorable French accent.

In the remake, Clouseau is played, wearing a silly beret, by the American actor Steve Martin. The film, due to appear next year, will also feature the cinema debut of the pop singer, Beyoncé Knowles, playing, challengingly, a pop singer. (Beyoncé is not the French for "bouncy" by the way; it is not the French for anything.) Clouseau's karate-loving Chinese side-kick Cato does not resurface in the new Pink Panther but is replaced by a karate-loving French side-kick, played by the French actor Jean Reno.

The long suffering Dreyfus is played by Kevin Kline. How strange, and utterly implausible, that such a resonant name from French history should be given to the Paris police chief. The real chief of police for the Paris area is called Proust.

Jean-Paul Proust.

* * *

There is a rash of wonderful, free - or free-ish - open-air events in Paris this summer. The Paris-Plage, the removable beach by the Seine returns on Wednesday. There is to be a vast ball in 1940s period costume, with swing and bebop music, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in the Place de la Bastille on 25 August. Period dance classes are already under way.

And from this weekend, until 29 August, the annual, open-air film festival returns to the Parc de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement, after being interrupted last year by a strike.

The films - ranging from Annie and Singin' in the Rain to Gangs of New York - start at nightfall. Entry is free but it costs €6 (£4) to hire a deck-chair and blanket. Many people sit on the grass.

Let's hope the weather picks up. The organisers are tempting fate: this year's festival is called "Un monde d'orages" - a world of storms.

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