Lundi de Pentcôte - the French public holiday that isn't

How a heatwave in the summer of 2003 that killed 15,000 people changed the French calendar forever

24 May 2021
By Brian McCulloch

Whit Monday, Lundi de Pentcôte, is a public holiday for most people in France but one that is not marked on the official calendar, after a mass refusal to accept its abolition.

It is one of the four original French public holidays in May – May Day,  May 8 marking the end of the Second World War in Europe, Ascension and Whit Monday - which, in 2021 falls on May 24.

The attempt to do away with the bank holiday came as a reaction to the heatwave of late July and August 2003 which saw temperatures over several days of 42C across large parts of France.

An estimated 15,000 mainly elderly people died as a result of the heat in the first two weeks of August. Some victims were only found in their apartments when neighbours returned from holiday.

The heat started just after numerous government services, including hospitals, health services and social services, had shut or slowed down for the summer holidays. As a result the official response was too slow.

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

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

This budget has led to innovations such as mairies drawing up lists of vulnerable people in communes and making sure they are telephoned or visited in heatwaves.

Grants are also given to retirement homes to make sure they have at least one air-conditioned lounge for residents.

Officially, all reference to the Lundi de Pentcôte 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 government did not anticipate the reaction of the French population. Most simply refused to go to work on the Lundi de Pentcôte, turning the day into another tax to be paid by businesses in France.

It quickly became clear that even government institutions like schools stayed closed.

The day is now officially referred to as: Journée de solidarité.

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 other arrangements, some involving two extra minutes to be worked every day during the working year, to compensate for it.

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.

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