Paris (CNN) — In France, summer holidays are sacred. So much so that the government is willing to bend its own Covid vaccination policies to let French workers hit the beach without worrying about their second injection.
Until it did, the public outrage over the prospect that rigid vaccination plans might jeopardize people’s summer getaways was enough to unite one of France’s biggest divides: “juilletistes” — those who holiday in July — and “aoûtiens” — those who prefer August.
To appease these fervent holidaymakers, authorities have agreed to waive guidelines that insisted second vaccinations must generally be received in the same place as the first. Now people can choose the locations, including popular vacation destinations.
The monthly preference of French sunseekers may seem a mere curiosity to the rest of the world, but for those who live there, it’s a serious matter — and one that annually grinds the entire nation to a standstill.
For anyone thinking of visiting France in the summer months, it’s also worth taking note, especially if they don’t want to find their favorite Paris restaurant closed for weeks, or if they want to avoid one of the world’s biggest traffic snarl-ups.
To understand why some people in France prefer August vacations and others prefer July is to make headway into understanding what it is to be French.
“Everyone in France looks forward to summer vacations,” says Julien Louap, a 30-year-old aoûtien. “It’s like Christmas but in summer.”
For Louap, a proud Parisian, the reason why August is better than July for vacation is simple: Paris is too exciting to leave in July. Each year the city organizes a grand firework show for July 14, the French national day, accompanied by public events and private parties.
Fireworks on the beach
This year, French traffic information services are expecting 700 miles of congestion.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP via Getty Images
When August arrives, the city is taken over by another sensation: calmness. Most of the residential areas of the city will be emptied as residents leave on vacation, which gives Arthur Cuhel, a 26-year-old aoûtien, another reason to not go on vacation in July.
Cuhel doesn’t want to return from vacation at the end of July to an empty city and get stuck at work at the time while most of his colleagues are away enjoying their August leisure time on the beach. Besides, August for him also means better weather, guaranteed sunshine.
“In July there are fewer people,” Cuhel said. “But the weather is also worse and I need the sun.”
But for many juilletistes, a less crowded beach is more valuable than a sunnier and hotter one. Plus, celebrating July 14 on an empty and relaxing beach is equally fun as throwing a party in Paris.
“You have fireworks on the beach,” said Juliette Gache, 21. “While for August 15 it’s usually packed.”
The cost of going on vacation in July is also lower as demands for hotel rooms is usually lower than in August. Vacationers in France booked 23.4 million nights in July compared to 24.8 million nights in August in the summer of 2019, the last pre-pandemic summer holiday season, according to a study published by France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies.
Despite being divided on many fronts, juilletistes and aoûtiens can agree on one thing that neither of their months is good for: traffic.
“Traffic jams are kind of a tradition,” Gache said. “Even if you leave your house at four in the morning, which my family usually does because we are psycho, you will always end up in traffic jams.”
‘Jam of the century’
Paris is usually quieter in August when many locals vacate the city.
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images
Getting stuck in a tiny, sometimes non-air-conditioned vehicle with three or four other family members on highway A7 is a childhood memory shared by many French people. This highway, linking the French cities of Lyon and Marseille through the Rhône river valley, is nicknamed “the sunshine highway” as it leads to the sunny French Riviera.
“The Rhône river valley is very hot during summertime,” said Lilian Delhomme, 24, juilletiste. “You will just die and then you resurrect once you are at the beach.”
The most infamous annual traffic jam in France takes place every year on the Saturday of the week when July meets August. It’s the day when returning juilletistes clash with departing aoûtiens which results in congestions across the country, called the “jam of crisscrossing.”
“This year, just like in previous years, we are expecting more than 700 kilometers of congestion,” said Fabrice Vella, chief forecaster at Bison Futé — “Smarty Buffalo” in English — French transport ministry’s traffic information service.
In fact, the traffic service was created as a result of a bad crisscrossing jam, the one of 1975, named “the jam of the century.” On August 2, 1975, the 800-kilometer-long National Road 10, which connected Paris to Spain at the time, saw a peak jam of 450 kilometers, meaning that half of the road was blocked by traffic.
Bison Futé currently uses a four-color ranking system to indicate the level of congestion with green on the good end and black on the bad end. France only sees one or two “black days” every year when the entire country is covered in black and usually the crisscrossing day will be one of them, according to Vella.
City at a standstill
One major reason behind the French passion for summer vacation is that French labor laws guarantee five weeks of paid vacation for most of its workforce. In fact, France was the first European country to implement a generalized two-week paid vacation in 1936, under the socialist government led by Léon Blum, according to Alain Chatriot, professor at Sciences Po university.
In the summer of 1936, for the first time since forever, hundreds of thousands of French factory workers took to the beach and enjoyed their vacation, a privilege previously reserved to the bourgeoisie and aristocracy.
“It remains one of the most symbolic provisions to the labor law,” Chatriot said.
French people’s love for vacation also means that American tourists planning to visit Paris this summer, especially in August, will find most of the restaurants and cafés closed.
A Paris native, Cyril Choisne, 40, has been working in the gastronomic world of the French capital since 2006. Eclipses, his own Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant near Musée d’Orsay, like most other restaurants in Paris, shuts its doors during the first half of August because most of their customers are gone.
“Last year, I tested opening from August 1 to August 15,” he said. Demand “dropped by more than 90%.”
But for Choisne, the tranquility is exactly why he encourages everyone to visit his home city at this time of the year. Just remember one thing, he said, “Always bring a bottle of water and keep in mind that it will be difficult to find a restroom because most of the city will be at a standstill.”