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A French debate: To shop or not to shop on Sunday?

A pair of court rulings last week added new fire to a French debate over whether shops should be open on Sundays. Many employers say they – and the economy – could use the boost in business, while others defend the idea of a day devoted to leisure.

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Two recent court decisions have reignited a longstanding debate about whether shops in France should remain open on Sundays.

On September 26, DIY stores Castorama and Leroy Merlin were ordered to close 15 Paris-area locations on Sundays following a complaint by rival Bricorama, which had been instructed last November to keep its own regional stores closed on Sundays after being sued by a labour union.

Just days before the latest ruling, on September 23, another court complied with a different labour union’s request to force perfume chain Sephora to close its flagship location on the Champs-Elysée at 9pm on Sunday, rather than midnight.

The rulings have added new fire to the fight between those who favour deregulation in order to spur a French economy barely out of recession and traditionalists who defend the importance of balancing work with leisure time.

The head of the main French employers’ union, Pierre Gattaz, told French TV channel BFM-TV last week that he was “shocked” by the court’s decisions to impose new restrictions on prominent French stores.

“It’s unbearable. Clients want to consume more and staff want to work more, and they can’t. It’s crazy,” he said.

The CEO of Bricorama, Jean-Claude Bourrelier, welcomed the court ruling as a way of ensuring that his competitors will now face the same rules as he does. But he, too, said the ideal solution would be allowing everyone to open on Sundays.

“I am a retailer. If my clients want to come on Sundays I have a duty to be open,” Bourrelier told Reuters. He said that closing his Paris-area shops has cost him between 15 and 20 percent of his annual profits.

Bourrelier also noted that he never had trouble finding employees willing to work on France’s traditional day of rest – especially because they were paid three times the normal hourly rate.

‘Yes Week-End’?

Indeed, those who support stores staying upon on Sunday say it would provide a boost to employment at a time when France is dealing with a 10.5-percent jobless rate, feeble economic growth and stagnating consumer spending.

But Sunday has been legally protected as a day of rest since 1906, though there are exceptions for fishmongers, florists and other types of commerce, including those in designated tourist areas like Paris’s Montmartre.

Businesses that violate the law by operating on Sunday without authorisation face fines of up to 6,000 euros ($8,000).

Those who defend the notion of Sunday as largely commerce-free – including unions that have fought to keep France’s 35-hour work week, as well as Catholic churches – argue that it is important to uphold the tradition of one day a week devoted to rest and relaxation.

But recent polls suggest that public attitudes toward the issue have moved decisively in the other direction. An Ipsos survey in November 2012 found 63 percent of the French in favour of expanding Sunday shopping. Meanwhile, hundreds of store employees marched in May to demand the right to work on Sunday, using the slogan “Yes Week-End” – a tongue-in-cheek appropriation of US President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign mantra, “Yes We Can”.

Paris mayoral candidates divided

Laws across Europe vary when it comes to Sunday commerce. While countries like Germany still largely limit Sunday store opening hours, Britain passed a sweeping loosening of regulations in 1994 and economically struggling nations like Italy and Greece recently relaxed their rules in a bid to boost consumer spending.

France, too, slightly eased its restrictions with a 2009 law, passed under former right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, which gave mayors the authority to designate specific Sunday shopping areas.

Now, with Socialist President François Hollande in office, further loosening of the rules appears unlikely. Labour Minister Michel Sapin has not indicated that he is inclined to do so, and prominent mayors like Paris’s Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist, has refused to extend Sunday commerce zones.

But tensions over the issue are sure to simmer anew as March’s hotly anticipated Parisian mayoral election approaches. Conservative candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet has proposed expanding Sunday shopping as part of an effort to defend France’s title as the world’s most-visited country.

Socialist contender Anne Hidalgo, on the other hand, has maintained that Sunday should remain a day of rest for people to spend time with family or do charity work.

Politicians on the far left have threatened to run against Hidalgo if she changes her stance.
 

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