Letter from Paris


It is September in Paris, and the city is gripped by la rentrée. So much more than the "back to school" vibe of most other countries, in France, la rentrée signals a new year for adults and children alike, and in Paris, a return to frenetic levels of noise and bustle. Every advertisement screams “la rentrée!”, from urging parents to get their children's school stationary (complete with the ominous hashtag #Septemberiscoming) to reminding us that now is the perfect time to get that gym membership. This is counterbalanced by the packaging on French cheese encouraging you to indulge a little à la rentrée, presumably to ease the pain of leaving summer behind. Colleagues return to the office bronzed after spending a month on a beach, and all those sporting, musical and cultural activities that you were doing after work start up again - or you can launch into something new. Last year it was Spanish and salsa; this year it's Italian and swing. Whole sectors and industries, from government to literature, have their very own rentrée.

La rentrée takes on such a magnitude in part because the summer shutdown in France is so extreme. Activity slows down to a trickle in July, before grinding to a complete halt in August. All those sporting, musical and cultural activities stop for the whole two months, which means that, speaking from experience, getting a yearly subscription to anything is not value-for-money. Public transport empties out, and for two blissful months you can get a seat on the metro. Restaurants and cafés shut up shop, and bakeries in each neighbourhood confer to ensure that at least one will remain open. The Anglo-Saxon approach of students working the summer shift has not made it to French shores.

With reality back in full swing in September, the favourite national pastime of the French, la manifestation, starts up again. No sooner had Hollande settled back into the Palais de l’Élysée than French farmers rolled in from across the country to blockade Paris’ main arteries with over 1300 tractors. Falling food prices due to lower demand from China, Russia’s embargo on EU goods, and a flood of products from Germany and Spain are forcing farmers to sell below production costs, and 10% of French farms are now on the verge of bankruptcy. Fearing the protests could bring the country to a standstill (think nationwide blockades in response to the 2010 proposed pension reform, or the fuel price riots of 2000), the Hollande government pacified the protesters with a 3 billion euro cheque; it remains to be seen whether this will be enough for the industry at the heart of French identity which is suffering a long, slow decline.

Two days later, a manifestation of a very different nature took place at Paris’ Place de la République. Late in the afternoon, thousands gathered to show their support and solidarity for the tens of thousands of refugees flooding Europe. Titled “Pas en notre nom” (not in our name), participants urged politicians and their fellow citizens to open the borders and welcome those fleeing the conflicts raging in the Middle East. The refugee crisis looks set to dominate headlines and EU political agendas for the months to come.