Lundi de Pentecôte: a holiday in France like no other

How a deadly heatwave in the summer of 2003 changed the French calendar forever

1 June 2020
Lundi de Pentcôte public holiday in France on June 1
By Brian McCulloch

Today (June 1) is a bank holiday in France – but not at all like the others in the calendar.

Originally one of the four public holidays in France in May* – giving May the title of the month that bosses hate – the Lundi de Pentecôte (Whit Monday) now has a special status.

This dates from a reaction to the heatwave of August 2003, when an estimated 15,000 mainly elderly people died as temperatures soared to 42C across large parts of France.

The heat started just after most government departments, including health and social services, had shut or slowed down for the summer holidays. Some of the victims' bodies were only found when neighbours returned from holiday.

Then-Health Minister Jean-François Mattei did not help matters by appearing on TF1 on August 11 that year, from his holiday home in the Var, wearing a polo shirt, assuring the nation that there was no crisis.

He was sacked from the government in March 2004, along with other ministers, after the government suffered heavy defeats in regional elections.

The resulting scandal also led to the end of the Raffarin government, and a new law voted through in 2004 and enacted for the first time in 2005, which effectively did away with the Lundi de Pentecôte public holiday, with wages and payroll taxes for the day being used to fund a special budget to boost care of the elderly in the community.

It is this budget which has led to mairies drawing up lists of vulnerable people in communes and making sure they are telephoned or visited during heatwaves. Grants are also given to old-age homes to make sure they have at least one air-conditioned lounge for residents. 

Related: Summer 2020 in France to be hotter than normal

Officially all reference to the Lundi de Pentecôte holiday was removed from the labour law books in 2008, and now the holiday has to be negotiated between workers and bosses in each business. The official reference to the day is now Journée de solidarité.

What the government did not anticipate was the reaction of the French population. Most simply refused to go to work on the Lundi de Pentecôte, turning the day into simply yet another tax to be paid by businesses in France. Even government institutions, like schools, were closed on the day.

It is estimated to now bring in about €3billion a year.

Most businesses have the day classified either as a paid holiday or as a compulsory RTT (reduction du temps de travail) day under the laws relating to the 35-hour week, but there are various arrangements, some involving two extra minutes to be worked every day during the working year, to compensate.

Whatever the arrangement, employers end up paying extra tax to the state for the day, and it is a day when no primes (the bonuses which can make up a large proportion of French salaries but which do not count towards pensions or social security) are paid to workers.

Related: Guide to Income Tax in France 2020

*The four public holidays in May are May Day on the first of May, celebrating international worker’s solidarity, the Fête de la Victoire 1945, on May 8, celebrating the end of the Second World War in Europe, Ascension, a Christian church holy day celebrating the day Jesus Christ appeared before followers before rising to heaven, and Lundi de Pentecôte, another Christian holy day celebrating the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Earth. Ascension and Pentecôte are not on fixed dates as they depend on the date of Easter, determined by the lunar calendar, which is why, this year, Lundi de Pentecôte falls on June 1.

The Ascension in May should not be confused with the Assomption public holiday, on August 15, which celebrates the rise of Mary, the mother of Jesus to heaven. August 15 is also the day Napoleon I was born in 1769, and during the Third Empire was treated as a public holiday celebrating him. Some people in France still refer to the August 15 holiday as Napoleon Day.

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