Children around the world may dread the end of the summer holidays and going back to school at the start of September, but the whole thing takes on a whole new dimension in France.
Here, la rentrée doesn’t just mean the start of a whole new school year (that’s actually called la rentrée des classes) but also the start of a whole new season in cultural, political and social life in France.
To understand how it works, we need to go back a few weeks to the middle of July. Schools officially break up around the start of the month—the official date is set by decree by the Minister of Education—and life continues as normal for a week or two.
But after that, the holiday season begins in earnest, and most families make a break for the countryside. Special train services are laid on and extra bulletins report on the state of the traffic jams as families frantically scramble to leave Paris and other major cities. Meanwhile, back in the capital, the city authorities install a temporary beach along the banks of the Seine for those who can’t afford to make it to the coast.
Most workers enjoy five weeks of paid holiday a year, so leaving for the entire month of August is not uncommon. Many French politicians lead by example, and a Minister returning early is often a sign of an imminent crisis. Small businesses usually follow suit, with the majority of local shops closing for at least a week or two in August, and less frequent service from bus and métro lines. The whole thing can be a little haphazard, with the only notice that the owners have headed south a quick note pinned to the shutters.
Holiday fever reaches a high point—or its lowest ebb, depending on how you look at it—on August 15, a public holiday, and by the end of the month, more and more people gradually return to the capital. Things really pick up at the start of September when school starts and the other rentrées all start:
- la rentrée littéraire: much hyped by French publishers, a whole swathe of new novels are normally published in the first few weeks of September
- la rentrée culturelle: theatres, the opera and other venues all announce details of their upcoming season before the holidays but this is when the first premières occur
- la rentrée politique: with their batteries recharged, French politicians begin a round of talk shows, trying to put their point across in the hope that the public will pay some attention now that the holidays are over.
It’s often said that Paris is at its best in the springtime, but la rentrée is a very exciting time of year to be in the city. Not only are most people still basking in a healthy glow from all those weeks spent on the beach, a whole range of new exhibitions, shows and cultural events will be breathing new life into the city after the quiet summer months.