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At 8 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday the 11 of January, exactly one week ago today, les Soldes began another year in France.

As you may know, les Soldes in France are a pretty big deal. In short, they are countrywide, biannual sales on all unsold seasonal merchandise. The word soldes in French technically means ‘balances’ (as in a check balance or budget balance) but is used as les soldes (always with the les) to mean ‘sales’ in a shopping context. What’s quite exceptional about these French sales is that they are countrywide. France goes on sale.

They are a national sport. French women organize their vacation time in order to take off a few days at the beginning of the sales period to ensure they are the first ones to the counter. Friends go in to the stores of their choice in advance of the Soldes, try on the clothes they like and organize among themselves so that each day one member of the group takes the collective list into one of the stores to purchase for the group during the first week before the merchandise is sold out. Even though the Soldes last for five weeks twice a year, most of the shopping is done within the first week. A rather counter-intuitive process, if you think about it, as the prices are slashed progressively throughout the five-week Soldes period. Of course, by the time we arrive at the end of the sales, there is hardly anything left to buy at 60% or 75% off. I suppose the French ladies know what they are doing.

I have it on good authority that the haute couture stores, who normally pride themselves on their hospitality and client-directed customer satisfaction, try to create an atmosphere of competitive frenzy during the weeks of les Soldes. The idea is to zero in on human herd behavior and pump up the already lucrative sales period. Having said this, if I was in the market for a Chanel suit or a Vuitton bag, I’d most certainly wait until les Soldes to buy it. Note that not all of a store’s merchandise is on sale during the Soldes – only leftovers from the past season.

I can’t say this Soldes frenzy is totally generic among the French. My belle-famille, for instance, stays as far away as possible from all stores during the Soldes because it’s such a bizarre, “total chaos, people everywhere, bumping, pushing. You have to really like shopping, really want a deal, or really not mind herds of people to put yourself through it,” my sister-in-law explained this weekend.

I have personally experienced les Soldes several times since moving to Paris. In fact, five years ago I made my move in January unaware of the Soldes. A few days after I arrived, I walked around the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés where I was renting a room in a convent at the time (that’s another story for another time) and found a fabulous pair of boots I bought at 50% off. I still have them, wear them all the time.

The Soldes in France have been likened to Boxing Day sales (December 26) in Canada or Thanksgiving Day shopping in the States. The difference in France is that there is a rhythm to the madness. The government, bien sûr, has put their stamp on the party. Les Soldes are legislated by law, as is so much in France. In 2008, the French Senat declared that the Soldes cannot be longer than five weeks; the dates are to be synchronized among all shop owners; they are to happen twice a year, once in winter to begin the second Wednesday of January and once in summer beginning on the third Wednesday in June. Shop owners have the right to hold other sales at different times of the year, but only for a total period of two weeks.

The goal of the Soldes is for shops to vide (empty) their remaining stock unsold during the two seasons between the sales periods. For the consumer, it offers a time to get some pretty great deals on items we might otherwise not have the means to purchase.

The vender is obligated to mark the original price as well as the Soldes price, so that you can be reassured you aren’t getting a 40% discount off an elevated price tag. And the hours of the stores are usually extended to capture a maximum of the Soldes shopping energy.

Les Soldes in Paris are particularly well-known. I might even go so far as to call them infamous. Shoppers come to Paris for the Soldes from all over the world. The Parisian Mairie (City Hall) considers the two Soldes terms among the hottest tourist times for the city. And entire industries are organized around this shopping period. Professional shoppers and chauffeurs thrive during les Soldes. The most fortunate of us hire these services to avoid the hassle and hordes themselves. I once read that Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly were both giant fans of the Soldes in Paris; although these Grande Dames, like many others of that echelon, did not, I suspect, hit the stores themselves.

It’s difficult to find out exactly when the Soldes began. Everyone I’ve asked remembers the Soldes being around for as long as they can remember. Even my 97-year-old grand belle-mère can’t remember a time when she didn’t see the red Soldes signs hanging in every shop window. However long they’ve been in existence, they are certainly now an institution in this country.

I’d say that 50% of Parisians take advantage of the Soldes and the other 50% are tourists or professional shoppers for local as well as international clients; although I have no statistical evidence to back up my theory. It’s just a hunch.

What is evident and clear, however, is that les Soldes in 2012 are as frantic and frenzied as ever. During les Soldes d’hiver (the Winter Sales), Paris has a certain energy in the air, a particular spice in the chilly wind that gets the French heart patting just a little faster than normal.

Vive les Soldes!