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Holidays Are a Way of Life in France in August. Yellow Vests Can’t Afford Them.

AUMETZ, France — It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, spending summer vacation by a traffic circle.

But even as much of the rest of France spent August at the beach, “Yellow Vest” demonstrators gathered near their habitual roundabout on a Friday evening. They shared drinks, sitting on mismatched chairs and lounging on castoff couches inside their wooden shack. “You’re in the right place,” read a sign hanging in the entrance.

“On television, they keep showing all these traffic jams,” said Rolland Gambioli, referring to the gigantic snarls on the national highways during the peak summer holidays. “You’d think everyone went on vacation, but many of us don’t. The reality is different.”

France is famous for its long summer vacations. In Paris, handwritten notes pop up on the doors of the local bakery, brasserie or locksmith indicating that the owners are away and that you should be, too. Streets, at least those without tourists, turn deathly quiet.

Vacations are sacred in a way that would seem strange in the United States, partly because they are regarded as an intrinsic part of France’s democracy. As children learn in the classroom, it is the right of every French person to join the seasonal human migration in August and get stuck in horrible traffic — unless you’re chilling on a roundabout.

ImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York TimesImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

“In France, if you’re not going away on summer vacation when everybody is, it means you’re no longer in the game,” said Jérôme Fourquet, a leading pollster who recently released a study on vacations and France’s growing inequality.

Even though 60 percent of the population still goes on summer vacation, more and more can no longer afford to, Mr. Fourquet found. And in keeping with larger shifts in the country’s consumer economy, traditional popular vacation spots like camping grounds now cater to higher-income clients by offering luxury bungalows.

The erosion of a cherished tradition reflects an increasingly inegalitarian society, one of the many changes that are tearing at France’s unspoken social contract.

It helped give rise to the Yellow Vest movement, whose complaints included the inability to afford pastimes — and whose earliest issues included, symbolically, making the parking free at Disneyland Paris.

The Yellow Vests no longer pose the political threat they did just a few months ago, and in many towns and cities they have been barred from their roundabouts or from protesting altogether after a surge of violence last winter.

But they survive as a social organization in depressed areas like Aumetz, a small former mining town in the deindustrialized north.

ImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York TimesImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

Among the regulars was Aurélie Mery, one of the first to occupy the roundabout in what has become the near-mythic retelling of its foundation.

There was “Casse-cou,” the daredevil who delighted in having been kicked, punched and generally abused during protests in Paris. ‘‘Le Corse,’’ a sullen type. An inseparable couple, Danièle and Clément, worried about their dogs. And there was Mr. Gambioli, who was known affectionately as “Papi,” or Grandpa, because he was the oldest of the bunch, and who kept a fire burning at the site — a responsibility he took seriously.

“The Yellow Vests are like a fire,” he said. “Sometime you only see embers, but it takes a few seconds to start again.”

Most of the regulars were staying put this summer, and gave various reasons.

“Actually, most just can’t afford to,” Ms. Mery said quietly.

Danièle Blel-Canon and her husband, Clément, who were stuck in Aumetz taking care of their dogs this summer, said she used to take the highway known as the “Motorway of the Sun” to go south every year — “the beach, the sea, the Mediterranean.”

“Vacations are sacred in France,” she said. “People would love to go on vacation with their children so they can refresh themselves and clear their heads. But they can’t. It’s hard.”

“So we’re spending our vacations at the roundabout,” she said, “because we’ve made friends here.”

ImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York TimesImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

It was almost midnight. Papi, the keeper of the flame, made sure the fire was roaring. Cars passed by, many coming back from Luxembourg.

Some honked in support of the Yellow Vests. Others yelled from their cars, often incomprehensibly.

“Your grandmother!” one driver shouted.

“Well, that’s definitely an insult,” said Casse-cou, a welder who worked in Luxembourg, where the wages were higher.

Momentarily annoyed, Casse-cou — whose real name is Christophe Prod’homme — went back to a more pleasant activity: going through his smartphone’s video library and replaying a clip in which he was kicked straight in the back by a riot police officer in Paris.

“Look again — pow!” he said. “That’s why they call me ‘Casse-cou’” — literally, broken neck. ‘‘I’m right in the thick of it.”

Before joining the Yellow Vest movement, he had spent the last nine years — after a divorce — playing World of Warcraft after work. Now he had an active social life on the roundabout.

“I met my girlfriend on a roundabout,” he said, nodding, with a smile, at Dominique Bary a few feet away.

In the Yellow Vests’ choice of location for their summer vacation — and the increasing number of other French unable to afford one — Ms. Bary saw the disappearance of something special about France.

ImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York TimesImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

“We learned, in school, how previous generations fought for our right to go away and have a little sun every year,” she said. “It was in our history books, in our civic education books, and it was passed down from father to son across three, four generations.”

Most French know that it was in 1936 that striking workers won key concessions from the government, including the shortening of the workweek to 40 hours and the establishment of paid holidays of 14 days a year — now 25 days. The government created youth hostels and slashed train fares for vacationers.

The number of summer vacationers spiked immediately, from 600,000 in 1936 to 1.8 million the next year. They continued to rise in the postwar decades of economic boom.

“Vacations were won through social struggle, and that’s why they were considered sacred,” said André Rauch, a historian who has written about the evolution of vacations in France.

Mr. Rauch, who is now leading a social study on the Yellow Vests’ roundabouts, said that many considered themselves guardians of the traffic circles. Losing their roundabout would mean losing their cause and their community.

“It’s become almost a biblical place, a sacred place,” he said.

On a Saturday morning, Papi was the first one there, as he always was. He had gotten the fire going by the time others started trickling in.

But as he left to run an errand, two police officers arrived and ordered the Yellow Vests to extinguish the fire — forbidden in a public space.

ImageCreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

“Today, we’ll let it go, we’re cool,” one of the officers said, not issuing a fine. “Tomorrow we might be cool. But after a while there are laws, and we have our orders.”

Papi came back. The others began leaving to join a protest in another town. He was alone.

“It’s like a funeral,” he said as he looked at the remains of the fire.


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