The Cruelty of May

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Bertrand Gardel / Hemis / Corbis

People hang out on the Pont des Arts in Paris, France.

T.S. Eliot may have branded April the cruelest month, but he was not a French employer. For those whose prime concern is the productivity of their workforce, May is anything but kind. That's because a series of public holidays create ponts ("bridges") that allow the weekends to eat into the 35-hour work week. And 2008 will be particularly harsh on employers: With the May 1 holiday falling on Thursday, chances are slim that most French employees will show up for work on Friday, either, despite the fact that it's nominally a working day. The pattern will be repeated the following week, when workers kick off their weekend with Thursday's May 8 holiday marking the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, a triumph most will celebrate by staying away on Friday, too. All in all, May this year holds three weekend-expanding holidays.

"Who doesn't adore the bridges of May?" asks Marc Guichard, an accountant from suburban Paris, who says he'll be taking his family away to the countryside this long weekend. "The ponts are the reason why May is everyone's favorite month in France."

Well, not quite everyone. Owners and managers of many businesses have traditionally snarled at May's propensity for kidnapping work days and undermining productivity. Technically, a work day taken off to bridge a holiday to a weekend qualifies as an absence or vacation day. But over the decades ponts have become a kind of de facto entitlement. Since most businesses are reduced to skeleton staffs during such periods, bosses long ago decided to give in, close shop and enjoy the extra time off along with everyone else.

"It's probably not all that fair to employers, but it's become the rule," Guichard acknowledges. Meanwhile, with the Paris stock market booming and France's leading companies posting enviable profits, Guichard feels little sympathy for bosses complaining that pont weekends are picking their pockets. "How can companies complain too much about a few days lost to ponts when most in France are more profitable than ever?"

The answer varies upon whom one asks. Most big businesses simply eat the lost work days or deduct them from the additional vacation time employees have been accorded since France introduced the 35-hour work week in 2000. Midsize and smaller companies running on tighter budgets say they have a harder time absorbing time lost to ponts; many have begun insisting that staff return to their posts between mid-week holidays and weekends.

But some companies — notably transport groups whose trucks are banned from driving during holiday weekends — say their schedules are so disrupted by May ponts that they now close business for the first half of the month and force employees to take it off as vacation—whether they want to or not. By contrast, companies in the tourism sector say May has become a one of the best months of the year outside the summer vacation season.

Ironically, 2008 is also notable for the return of two entities particularly beloved by employees and despised by their bosses. First is the return of the obscure Christian holy day of Whit Monday as a national holiday, just four years after it was demoted to a regular working day — one, in fact, for which employees wouldn't even be paid. That strange concept was introduced in 2004 by a previous right-wing government, which wanted the proceeds from a worked (but not remunerated) Whit Monday to fund care for the elderly. Earlier this year, France's conservative government reversed the universally disdained measure.

That restoration of Whit Monday as a public holiday has meanwhile created another phenomenon favored by the French: the transformation of the long-weekend "bridge" into an even longer "viaduct." With Whit Monday falling on May 12 this year, the four-day weekend set to begin with the Victory Day celebration on May 8 will now extend itself all the way to the following Tuesday morning. French lovers of such five-day "viaduct" weekends had better savor this one, however: in 2009 all May holidays fall on either a Friday or Monday — making even "pont" construction impossible. And in 2010 and 2011, they'll on turn up on weekends, redefining May as the cruelest month, not for bosses, but for their staff.