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French Head To The Slopes For Winter Break


The debt crisis in Europe is changing the way many Europeans live and work, but apparently not so much how they play, especially in France, where in long vacations, even in winter, have remained sacrosanct. NPR's intrepid Eleanor Beardsley takes to the French Alps to investigate.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: For Americans, February and early March can be a dismal time of the year. But for the French there's no gloom. It's time for the traditional vacanses d'hiver, or winter vacation.


BEARDSLEY: During the two-week - yes, you heard it - two-week school break, the streets of Paris empty out. Everyone, it seems, heads to the ski slopes. At the resort of Metabief in the Jura Mountains on the border with Switzerland, the ski schools are full of tots in matching slalom vests. A panoramic view of the Alps greets the more advanced skiers at the top of the mountain. Divorced father Sebastien Chalard says he enjoys a ski week every year with his 8-year-old son Swan.

SEBASTIEN CHALARD: (French spoken)

SWAN CHALARD: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Chalard says the winter ski vacation is a ritual for the French. Swan began to ski at the age of 4. Gerard Regner and his family have come to ski with a group of friends from their hometown of Dijon. Regner say the economic crisis has forced them to make choices so they could keep their summer and winter vacations.

GERARD REGNER: In France, for a lot of people it's very important, holiday and vacation. And for that they prefer do less during the year and keep money for going on holidays.

BEARDSLEY: So, it's more important for example to have holiday than to buy a new car?

REGNER: Oh yes, yes, it's more important. Because a car, it's nothing, it's only appearance. But it's not the life, the real life. Real life it's to be in holidays.

BEARDSLEY: France has the biggest ski industry in the world after the U.S. with some 53 million annual ski days. Despite the crisis, the French tourist industry is still growing at about 5 percent a year.


BEARDSLEY: The usually quiet villages of the Jura come alive during the winter school vacation. In Entre les Fourgs, population 200, dozens of families gather to drink mulled wine and hot chocolate as they watch skiers carrying flaming torches glide down the snowy mountain at night.


CORINNE BRACHET: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Corinne Brachet runs the century old Hotel du Lac. Despite competition from low-cost airlines, she says she's full for the season.

BRACHET: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: We can't really compete with the sun of the Maldives Islands, says Brachet, but we offer a convivial family atmosphere that keeps our regulars coming back. Brachet says it will take more than a debt crisis to stop the French from taking their vacanses. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.