The Mass Exodus of Paris and Travel Armageddon

A photo of the traffic jams that ensue every year during the mass exodus of Paris.

Last Friday, I decided I needed to get out of the city for the day. After months spent inside my apartment, it was time to get back into nature. And get back into nature I did. I ended up hiking over 20km through the Fontainebleau forest, and I adored every minute of it. At the end of the day, I all but collapsed onto the train, ready for a peaceful ride back into Paris. Peaceful, that is, until I arrived at Gare de Lyon and disembarked into chaos. And then I remembered. Last Friday marked the beginning of the annual mass exodus from Paris, otherwise known as the French summer holidays. Let me explain.

One of the many, many reasons why I love living in France is the French lifestyle. Contrary to many stereotypes, the French do work very hard, but they also truly value their work-life balance. Evenings are for socializing, not checking last minute work emails, and weekends are spent in parks, museums, or out on a terrace. In the summer, it’s traditional to go on holiday for an entire month, with some people going all out and taking the whole summer off. It may or may not be one of my life goals to one day be one of those people.

Bottom line, the French take their holidays seriously. However, with everyone going on holiday at the same time, this means that there are certain weekends during the summer when you should never travel if you can help it. This past weekend was one of them, because Friday was the last day of the school year. Once the kids are officially free for the summer, everyone flocks to the train stations and highways to get a jump-start on their holidays. Hence the chaos on Friday. Saturday would have been even worse, as people across the country hit the road for their summer destinations. Over the years, I’ve found myself stuck on a bus in traffic during these weekends, trying to lead a day tour out of Paris. Let’s just say it was never a pretty sight.

The good news is that these travel armageddons usually only happen three times during the summer, meaning they’re easy enough to avoid. There’s the first weekend in July, when all of the July travellers, known as juillettistes, start their vacation. There’s the last weekend in August, when all of the August travellers, known as the aoûtiens, come back from their vacation. And then there’s the dreaded changeover weekend. This is the weekend right in the middle of the summer, when the juillettistes head home and the aoûtiens head out. I remember watching the news coverage one year and thinking that it sounded like the reporters were talking about the end of the world. Another year, it was reported that the traffic jams started as early at 4AM. I suppose that’s what happens when an entire country goes on holiday at the same time.

I once asked a French friend why people didn’t just end their vacation on a Wednesday in order to avoid the travel chaos. They simply replied, “Because this is how it’s always been done.” It was a delightfully French answer. Because, yes, this is the way it’s always been done. There is a rhythm to life in France, and the mass exodus of Paris every summer is just one of the many ebbs and flows that I’ve grown to love. Hopefully, I too will one day be able to take a whole month off during the summer. And as I’m sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, trying to get to a house in the countryside, instead of getting frustrated, I’ll just smile to myself and remember that this is the French way. Traffic jams and all.

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Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.