The Wordsmith

La Rentrée: A Hard Fall

In France, September is when people return to work and study after the summer vacation, and everything restarts all at once in factories, offices, and schools. This is an astonishing phenomenon when observed from the United States, where there is no culture of long summer breaks and businesses are almost always open.
© Sylvie Serprix

As the end of the summer approaches in France every year, a number of questions are on everyone’s lips. What will la rentrée have in store? What will the socio-economic climate be? How many strikes and labor union marches will be held? Everyone generally predicts a miserable – or even explosive – month to come. What the French refer to as la rentrée, literally “the return,” corresponds to the period in September when economic and social activities start back up after the summer break.

Americans observe this effervescence with a certain bemusement. Why would they return when they’ve never left? People in the U.S. take vacations, of course, but not as many as the French and not necessarily in the summer. Meanwhile, from Paris to Lille to Lyon, July and especially August herald a general slowdown across France. Many factories close, offices lie empty, and businesses put down the shutters. Above all, a vast number of French people flee the cities to relax by the sea and in other tourist destinations.

Almost everyone leaves at the same time, and most of them come back together. Some travel from the north to the south in the early summer, while others make the reverse journey two months later. And with grand departures and triumphant returns come traffic jams, which often swell to nightmarish proportions. This phenomenon is particularly stark during the infamous chassé-croisé (a dance step also meaning “criss-cross”), referring to the weekend of heavy traffic caused by July tourists (affectionately known as les juilletistes) coming home and August tourists (les aoûtiens) setting out. Under these conditions, anyone can understand that getting back to work is not a happy prospect. “Dure, dure la rentrée !” exclaim the French every year.

Little ones are not spared these seasonal horrors, either. In September, schools reopen after several weeks of vacation. More questions abound for this educational event. Will there be enough classes for all the students? Have teaching staff numbers recovered? And have you seen the new curriculum? This is a windfall for certain business owners, whose sales skyrocket for several days as parents rush to buy school supplies and clothing.

Much like adults, children all return to normal life around the same time – and sometimes the same day. It is easy to imagine the chaos outside the school gates! However, this is not the case in Germany or Spain, where schools reopen at different times ranging from late July to mid-September, as dictated by the Länder or autonomous regions. This is even more pronounced in the United States, where back-to-school dates vary from one county to another, and private institutions have the final say on their calendars.

Around the same time, towards the end of the summer, the French literary sector also goes into overdrive with – you guessed it – la rentrée littéraire. Within a few weeks, from late August through early November, hundreds of books making up a large percentage of annual output appear in stores. Adding to the tension, all the major literary prizes, including the Goncourt, Renaudot, Médicis, Fémina, and Décembre, are awarded in late October and early November.

In fact, the entire culture industry gets whipped up in this movement. Whether exhibitions, movies, plays, shows, or performances, the start of the fall is a crucial time when companies across the sector make a large part of their annual revenue.

To top it all off, September is also when politicians return to work – la rentrée parlementaire. This starts with members of government, who make their way back to the Elysée for the first conseil des ministres, a ministerial meeting, after the summer. They are followed by other representatives and senators taking up their posts after a month’s vacation.

Of course, not everyone is in the same boat. For anyone staying home during the long summer break – and there are many, often those who lack the means to go away – la rentrée may be less unpleasant. A pitiful consolation, but a consolation all the same.

Article published in the September 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.