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”
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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 falls this year on May 20.

In France, it used to be one of the four ordinary jours fériés (bank holidays) in May, where workers got the day off.

Officially it is still in the calendar as a public holiday, but there is a grey area over whether or not workers actually still get the day off.

“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, we heard 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

The situation first became complicated after 2004 as a result of a deadly drought in the summer of the previous year.

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: 2024 bank holiday dates in France and how they are celebrated

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 designated as a Journée de solidarité.

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

In reality, many workers still get Pentecost Monday off, but this has to be negotiated between workers and bosses in each business.

However, as it is not a normal paid bank holiday, the worker will have to make up the time or use up one of their allocation of paid holiday days.

Read also: How Easter is different in France and 10 related sayings