France: economic reality hits holidayers

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.

By the time words like “rigor” and “austerity” reach the ears of the common man, they start to sound like “job loss” and “a decrease in consumer spending power.” The result is a “psychological recession,” with people not spending because “they are afraid of tomorrow,” said Patrick Lachaud, an events planner in Paris.

“People no longer know whom to trust,” said Lachaud, 42. “Before there is an economic crisis, there is a crisis of confidence.”

The Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development reported consumer confidence peaked in January but then declined with news of budget cuts and an unemployment rate holding steady at 9.9 percent.

Lachaud said politicians asking citizens to tighten their belts are grossly out of touch with reality. President Nicolas Sarkozy is “not conscious of the lives of French citizens,” he said. “Their [citizens] belts are already tight; at the end of the month they have nothing left.”

As he does every year, Lachaud will take his vacation at the beginning of September, when prices are cheaper, to travel to Nice, Cannes and St. Malo. He might also opt for a few weekend trips to neighboring countries in between.

He considers himself fortunate that he can still enjoy such pleasures thanks to a job in a field where one can earn anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 euros ($4,000 to $13,000) per month, though most in the industry are only able to work for about six months per year during peak times like holidays and vacation. (Most people who work professionally in the entertainment business in France are considered sporadic employees and the government subsidizes their incomes for the days that they don’t work.)

While his own financial habits haven’t changed drastically, he has noticed a reticence among his friends to spend money. Where once it was possible to go to dinner and a movie or dinner and a nightclub, now the group has to choose one activity in order to accommodate various personal budgets.

“My behavior with my friends has changed,” Lachaud said. “I have to consider what they can no longer do.”

In such a climate, a venue like Paris Plages is more than welcome. The attraction lasts four weeks, until Aug. 20, and costs a total of 2.2 million euros ($2.9 million), or 300,000 euros less than last year’s 2.5 million euro budget.

On a recent Sunday, the river’s pedestrian-only banks were packed with children and adults building sand structures, waiting in line for ice cream, lounging in river side cafes, playing petanques and visiting a smoothie-making stand. More than 4.5 million visitors were expected to visit the Seine beach this summer.

That was good news for Yeno, a street magician, who has performed for tips at Paris Plages since 2002. But lately he has noticed fewer people reaching into their pockets.

“You can feel that people want very much to give, but they are a bit limited,” Yeno said between performances. “You can see that people are giving less.”

Jean Luc Filin-Sencee, 33, who works in finance management, had a slightly different assessment, saying that for the most part people in the medium income bracket had been spared the harshest blows.

He said that a certain pessimism had indeed settled over people causing their desire to spend to diminish. But fundamentally, not much had changed for the majority of those who are employed.

“The rich are a little less rich and the poor are a little more poor,” he said.