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Why the French Work This Holiday for No Pay

Pentecost, from the Ancient Greek pent?kosta, meaning fiftieth, is the Christian holiday celebrating the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles fifty days after Easter.

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In France, as well as in many other Christian countries across Europe — such as Germany, the Netherlands, Greece or Romania — the Pentecost Monday is a national holiday. But instead of going out for picnics, the French are working — only, they won't get paid.

The whole of the Pentecost week used to be a holiday, but after the 1789 revolution only the Monday remained a public holiday.

In 2003, France, as well as the rest of Western Europe was hit by a strong heat wave, which resulted in almost 15,000 victims during the first 20 days of August only, according to the French national statistics institute, INSEE, most of which were elderly.

That was a wake-up call for the country, which realized additional care should be dedicated to its aging population .

In order to finance this additional care, the government of the time passed legislation making every worker give up one day of holiday for the effort and chose “Lundi de Pentecôte” for it.

Unapplied French Laws

The law came into force in 2005, and that year about 44 percent of French workers got up, went to work and gave up their day-worth of salary for their seniors.

But habits are hard to get rid of and quickly, the perspective of a three — day weekend was too tempting. People started taking days off, whether it be off of their vacation days account — in France, workers are granted with at least five weeks of paid vacation — or off their compensation days record — following the introduction of the 35-hour week in 2000.

In the end, five years after the reform, in 2010, only 20 percent of French workers went to work, with strong disparities between social categories. The rate went down to 10 percent for private practice workers and senior executives.

In order to tackle the situation, the government passed a bill in 2008, reinstigating Pentecost Monday as a holiday, but kept the idea of a “solidarity day,” or seven hours of work that each and every worker in France has to give away for solidarity. They can give up a holiday, a vacation day, a compensation day or even seven hours divided up all through the year.

This solidarity day allowed the French government to raise up to 2.1 billion euros ($3.01 billion) in 2007.

But six years into the reform, an employee decided to raise a constitutional question to the French civil Supreme Court, the “Cour de Cassation.”

The trade unionist, an employee of retailer Carrefour , argues that asking workers to give away a day's worth of salary is breaking the principle of equality of citizens against taxes. His point is being heard by the court as retired people, artisans and some private practice workers are not subject to the reform.