Plus ça change

Autumn has come early to the Tarn. Normally, the leaves are still green when we leave our house here at the end of October. We watch the gradation of colour as we drive back to England. But this year the colours started changing in late September, and the leaves started falling. The weather has still mostly been warm, but not in the mornings or evenings. The sun has seemed less able to recharge its batteries each day.  

The harvest, paradoxically, is late. Not for wheat and barley, which were cut months ago, but for maize and sunflower. In other years, tractors would have been trawling the fields in mid-September, but not this year. Apparently, farmers are waiting for their crops to dry out. This has been a year of searing heat and heavy rain. All will no doubt come right in the end and, when we return in the spring, the cycle of the seasons will have started all over again.

Up on the hill, Gilbert is chopping his logs in the sunset. To be exact, he is chain-sawing them. Gilbert is a farmer but, now that he has retired, he is not allowed to farm, so he produces firewood. Once you start drawing your pension, French law lets you keep working, as long as you no longer do whatever you did before you retired. The thing you were good at, probably. Pondering this apparently nonsensical law, we have concluded that the reason must be to create permanent vacancies for younger people – younger farmers, in this case.

We seldom go into town and, when we do, we have to choose our time carefully. Almost everywhere is closed between 12 and 2 pm. As for Sundays, forget it. Lunch and a day of rest take precedence over the customer. In fact, most things take precedence over the customer. On any day.

Then there are the bank holidays – the religious feast days of a secular country. British bank holidays are mostly on a Monday: you can have a long weekend and that’s your lot. In France, they often fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This creates the opportunity for faire le pont – making the bridge. If Thursday is a bank holiday, it obviously makes no sense to go to work on the Friday, so that becomes another holiday.

When we were decorating our house in the Tarn, and I was following the plasterers around with a paintbrush, I was concerned because their irregular absences meant I had caught up with them and was having to wait for the next room to be ready.

‘Will you be here all next week?’ I asked Yves one Friday.

‘Oh yes,’ he said.

‘Every day?’

‘Well, Tuesday is a bank holiday, so not Tuesday.’

‘Apart from that?’

‘I take a holiday on Friday. Every year, some friends and I go duck-shooting in the Camargue.’

‘So Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, then?’

‘Not Monday,’ said Yves. ‘Faire le pont. And Wednesday? Non. The Tour de France is passing by.’ He shrugged his shoulders to express the obvious impossibility of working on such a day. So ‘all next week’ amounted to one day.

These observations are neither a nostalgic reflection on an old way of life, nor a patronising critique along the lines of ‘well, how on earth can you compete in the world economy?’ They are tiny examples of the practices that Emmanuel Macron wants to sweep away.

But I wonder if he is choosing the right time to do it. I wonder, in fact, if what was right for France a hundred years ago might not also be right for France in the next hundred years (and for Britain too), even if for the past century it has been wrong.

Some future blog will address the question of what is to become of our working lives in the age of artificial intelligence and so much else. But, if anything seems certain, it is that many fewer hours will be required to do the same amount of work, and yet – even with a static population – longer useful lifespans will mean an increase in the hours available for work. How the rewards of work are to be shared is the thorny question, but the average amount of work required from each person will surely fall.

So perhaps this is, after all, the perfect moment to reduce the working week. The perfect moment to insist on long and frequent holidays. The perfect moment to take leisurely lunch breaks. Perhaps, instead of France needing to catch up with the rest of the world, the rest of the world will need to go back to where France has always been.

I am in the great revolutionary nation of the world, which is also the great unchanging nation. Plus ça change.