When this writer was young, travelling through Paris in the family car on the way to Spain, it came as a shock to discover the Fermeture Annuelle. What was the matter? Didn’t they want our money? We had after all gone to all this trouble to take the car ferry into this strange country. The least they could do would be to keep the shops open in the high season, wasn’t it? The short answer was “non”.
Back in the Fifties, in spite of a very unstable political climate in which governments seemed to be engaged in a permanent game of musical chairs, economically speaking France was in full post-war recovery mode. In what would later be known as “Les Trente Glorieuses”, thirty years of uninterrupted growth, the prospect of missing out on a few transient tourist pounds—hardly a blip on the radar—in no way discouraged M & Mme Dugenoux* from pulling down the steel shutters on the store and taking their hard-earned summer break.
Since then, in spite of European integration, the Fermeture Annuelle remains a very French and very tenacious rite. Only the dates have shifted by a couple of weeks. Once, the Fermeture Annuelle encompassed the entire month of August. It produced a massive exodus of cars heading south, with beaches, hotels and camping sites taken by storm followed inevitably by the nightmare of the drive back at the end of the month. This ritual was and remains a purely Franco-French affair. No one else is involved.
Once, les vacances d’été, the object of much anticipation in June and July, were to be taken in August as a sort of national communion to be washed away in time for the Rentrée des Classes. Yet times change. France may have a magnificent road, rail and air infrastructure which can and does handle a volume of traffic far in excess of its domestic need, yet catering as it does to an annual influx of visitors greater in number than the entire population, when it all wants to travel on the same day, inevitable system overload occurs.
These days, more and more people attempt to stagger their summer break. Basically, the new “vacances du mois d’août” begin on or around Bastille Day (14 July) and end a month later after La Fête du Quinze Août. None of this gradual shift has anything to do with foreign tourism. France is the world’s number one foreign tourist destination (as opposed to domestic tourism, led of course by the 85% of Americans who do not have a passport). Even today, Americans coming to France are puzzled and vexed that their dollars do not produce a feeding frenzy. Visitors from the US don’t even account for 10% of tourist revenue which itself is far from being the number one contributor to France’s GNP.
So what engendered the Fermeture Annuelle? How did it start and why does it continue?
You need to go back to 1936 and the short-lived era of the Front Populaire, the then party in power led by Leon Blum. The Front Populaire successfully forced through legislation requiring every industry to allow its workforce to take a summer vacation on full pay. This measure was controversial to say the least. Naturally, big business hated it but the “populo” loved it. It immediately produced a new breed of social animal. To meet the needs of this vast army of “congés payés” who poured out of the factories bound for La Nationale 7, la Route des Vacances, a host of affordable seaside resorts sprang up on every coast. Organized campgrounds known as Les Colonies de Vacances (les “colos”) offered a taste of freedom, sunshine and carefree living for a generation of working stiffs and their families. Follow any étape du Tour de France to meet the grand-kids of those same congés payés. Now they have an air-conditioned caravan in tow behind the Béhème (BMW) and the consumption of pastis is not what it once was, but the spirit of ’36 is alive.
Julien Duvivier’s “La Belle Equipe” and Yves Boisset’s masterful “Dupont Lajoie” both show something of the le petit franchouillard en goguette (translation available on demand). Only the prosperity has changed.
In another part of the social spectrum, the Fermeture Annuelle owes its continued vigor to the national ritual of La Rentrée des Classes. “Nos chères têtes blondes”—our beloved kids—exercise the same tyranny over their hard-working parents as anywhere else in the world. Woe betide any parents who miss the first day back at school of their bambins because of staggered vacations. Back-to-school day in France is as immutable as Christmas Day, and it concerns between seven to ten million French families. Hardly surprising that the retour des vacances and the passage of toll plazas around the big cities on les journées rouges is tracked with as much energy and attention as the imminent arrival of a hurricane.
Any visitor to France with the freedom to choose the best time to be there will head south when everyone else is heading north. All the unsold big-ticket beachwear, now desperate to find a home, will be jobbed out at deep discounts. Good tables can be found at almost any restaurant with no wait, no crowds. Beaches are returned to their off-season pristine emptiness. No territorial tussles involved in spreading beach towels. No hawkers peddling day-old pans bagnats.
In fact, the one true remaining luxury left after the stampede of the Fermeture Annuelle is the calm and delicate surprise of the Belle Arrière-Saison.
*Mr. & Mrs. Joe Sixpack