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France: economic reality hits holidayers

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

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.