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Whit Monday: France’s most confusing bank holiday

It used to be a simple bank holiday in May like any other. But the tragic events of 2003 changed everything

Instead of getting a paid day off as before, people in France work “for free” Pic: witsarut sakorn / Shutterstock

It is difficult to think of a day in the French calendar that is more confusing and ambiguous than the lundi de Pentecôte.

Better known as Whit Monday or Pentecost Monday in Anglophone countries, it is marked this year on May 29. 

In France, it used to be one of the four traditional jours fériés or Bank Holidays in May, where workers got the day off.

It remains a Bank Holiday, but the question of whether you can stay away from the office is another matter.

“It is a day like any other,” Laurent Gastineau, a 59-year-old early retiree, told The Connexion on the streets of Paris.

But further down the street, a different perspective.

“It is like a forced paid-leave day,” said Gabrielle Holchaker, 31, an employee at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

These responses illustrate the crux of the issue: Pentecost Monday is a Bank Holiday unlike any other where the likelihood of a worker getting a day off is dependent on who he or she works for and whether the employer is in the private or public sector.

Explained: How Pentecost Monday in France works

Everything changed after 2004.

That is because the previous summer, more than 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.

Read more: Row over work on bank 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 saw the day referred to as Journée de solidarité.

Instead of getting a paid day off as before, people in France work “for free”, that is to say without receiving a salary in return. In exchange for this, their employers pay a contribution to the state to improve the living conditions of the elderly and disabled.

Workers can still get Pentecost Monday off, but it has to be negotiated between workers and bosses in each business.

It is worth noting that even if it is granted, the worker will still be unpaid and have to either work another bank holiday to compensate or make up the time in another way.

Read also

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