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France: economic reality hits holidayers

Broke French still taking vacations, but it's getting harder.

PARIS, France — It was far from the pearly beaches of her native Martinique, but Yolaine Jean-Alphonse decided the 1,350 tons of sand covering the banks of the Seine river for the ninth edition of Paris Plages (Paris Beach) would have to do.

“I would have liked to go to the Antilles,” said Jean-Alphonse, a 55-year-old nurse’s aide, who like many in Paris at this time of year felt the craving for sun, fun and distraction from the daily routine. But family obligations and a tighter budget this year meant Jean-Alphonse would need to spend her three weeks of summer vacation close to her suburban home.

Jean-Alphonse was joined by her sister, Viviane, and her sister-in-law, Ghislaine, at Paris Plages — one of the city’s most popular annual attractions. The women agreed that French people everywhere were feeling the economic pinch. In their immediate circle, friends and colleagues were opting for vacations closer to home, going camping or visiting family in other regions of the country.

Before, people traveled further away and for longer periods of time. But now, “people really have a budget, it’s double-checked and it’s prepared ahead of time,” said Ghislaine Jean-Alphonse, 48, who works for an insurance company.

Nevertheless, about half of the country’s citizens were planning to take a vacation in July or August, according to a study by Protourisme, released in July. The study considered a real vacation was when a person spent more than four nights away from home. An estimated 48 percent of French planned to do so.

But more people were waiting until the last minute to book, the study said. And about 80 percent of the trips were to places in France while 20 percent were expected to be abroad.

This year is comparable to the previous two years when just over half of the French population took a vacation despite the economic crisis, according to the French national statistics agency.

The difference was the number opting to stay in France, 67 percent versus 54 percent in 2009, traveling during off-peak periods or simply being more careful about how much they spend on extras like restaurants.

“I still have the right to my vacation days, but my right to leave is based on my wallet,” Ghislaine Jean-Alphonse said.

A public opinion survey released last week confirmed that despite the downturn, French people wanted to keep their vacation budgets in tact, even if it meant sacrificing other expenses.

But words like “austerity,” “fiscal discipline” and “reform” seem to have dribbled down from the political echelons to inhabit the national psyche.

A monthly survey by the French national statistics agency of 2,000 people, intended to paint a picture of the economic circumstances in French households, indicated that the French were “pessimistic” about their current economic situation.

The press also scrutinized French Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s use of the word “rigor” — in relation to economic cutbacks — when he spoke to Japanese businessmen this month while attempting to court foreign investment. In May, the prime minister announced a freeze in public spending as a way to reduce the deficit by 10 billion euros by 2013 but avoided using the actual word, "freeze," which is unpopular with a public already wary of government cuts in public services.

The government has tried to lead by example. The Elysee Palace canceled a lavish garden party that was to take place as part of the July 14 Bastille Day celebration. Other measures included doing away with jobs by attrition, reducing staff and perks in the administration itself as well as debt in the pension system by raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.

But for every cost-cutting gesture aimed at reigning in public spending, missteps occur like the Liliane Bettencourt affair, with its twists of political intrigue and hints of financial impropriety that gave the impression of preferential treatment for the wealthy at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

Thus, it came as little surprise that two ministers were forced to resign over questionable expenses involving cigars and private jets.