Paris is a curious place in August. It has always seemed to me odd that a first world capital should all but shut down for a month - it used to be two months - but then I'm not French. Parisians seem to think it normal that it's next to impossible to get an appointment with a doctor, dentist, specialist or even a plumber, builder, solicitor, until after La Rentrée in September. Of course you can argue this is a good thing; less stress, more leisure, slower pace of life et al; all fine unless you need a doctor, dentist, plumber in Paris in August. A couple of years ago a 40+ friend undergoing IVF treatment in those twilight years of dwindling fertility when every minute let alone every month seems to count, was told in June to report back to her specialist in September. It wasn't that he would be on holiday for three months, he explained, but someone involved in the procreation process would be so it wasn't worth starting. She cried all the way home. Her gynaecologist was right. French hospitals in August make the NHS look overstaffed.
In August French newspapers and magazines go into summer mode. Their pages are filled with timeless, repeat features produced well in advance so their journalists can take the summer off. In any case, it is extremely hard to buy a newspaper or magazine since, though the French press is in a sales crisis, most of the kiosks are closed too. Parking in much of Paris is also free, presumably because the traffic wardens are all on holiday, and many shops and restaurants close while their owners head south even though it is the peak of the tourist season.
When I first arrived in France fellow journalists joked how each summer they wrote stories about Paris families dumping granny outside the hospital - even if she wasn't sick - putting the children into holiday camps, kicking the dog out of the car on the motorway and disappearing down south for les vacances. I laughed but thought they were pedaling cheap stereotypes. Then in 2003 Europe had one of its hottest summers on record. In France, a whisker short of 15,000 people died, most of them elderly, many of them left by their families in hospitals and care homes and nearly all of them from a lack of water. Pretty basic stuff. Two weeks later there were still unidentified and in an emergency morgue in a refrigerated warehouse at a food market on the outskirts of Paris. Again, basic stuff: the victims' families had gone on holiday leaving Mamie and Papie behind, had heard reports of the heatwave killing the elderly - they can hardly have missed them because for once the French newspapers, radio and television had some real summer news to report - but had apparently not telephoned to find out if they were all right and still alive.
Sometimes reality is stranger than stereotype: the majority of French people I have met believe they are entitled to go on holiday for large swathes of July and/or August even if it means the country virtually closing down. The peak of this national inactivity is August 15, the Ascension bank holiday, which is odd in a country that vaunts its secular credentials. Having this day off and if possible several either side is the norm. Last year, the 21-year-old son of some French friends doing six-weeks' paid work experience during his 12-week summer break was genuinely horrified when he was told he could have Wednesday 15 August off - it was a national holiday after all - but not the Thursday and Friday afterwards. This meant he could not go away for five days. I fully expected a dossier to be sent to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.
Unlike in Britain where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth about who is in charge of the clattering country while Gordon Brown is on holiday, nobody, as far as I know, is standing in while François Fillon the French prime minister is away. They are all away too. Normal service will be resumed in September.