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No late-night shopping please, we’re French


French retail giant Monoprix became the latest store to close its shutters at 9pm instead of 10pm on Tuesday as a contentious debate over working hours has pitted many French retail employers and employees against the unions that represent them.


The battle to buy late at night in the City of Lights – and perhaps even shop on the Lord’s Day – got more intense in France this week with the war over working hours gripping a major French retail chain.

On Tuesday, the management of French retail giant Monoprix announced that stores which stayed open until 10pm in several French cities – including Paris – would now close at 9pm.

The change in working hours follows an internal agreement between France’s largest trade union and the Monoprix management pending an appeal lodged by Groupe Casino, which owns Monoprix, in a French court.

As the case works its way through the courts, with unions and management scrapping over France’s strict labour laws, consumers in French cities will have an hour less of shopping time to stock up on anything from basic foods to household electronics.

The Monoprix decision comes amid a heated debate in France over regulations surrounding late night and weekend working hours in the retail sector.

Workers angry

Last month, a Paris appeals court ordered French cosmetics chain Sephora to close its flagship boutique on the Champs Élysées at 9pm, angering sales staff who said they had agreed to work until midnight for years and now risk losing their jobs.

In its ruling, the appeals court said the cosmetics chain breached work-time regulations by serving customers until midnight on weekdays and 1am on weekends at its store on the iconic Paris avenue.

With its 35-hour working week and long vacations, the stereotype of the “non-working” French worker has been hard to shake off despite evidence that the average Frenchman or woman works more than 35 hours per week and the French are among the most productive in the world.

The latest spat over late night and weekend work hours has seen many French workers expressing outrage that unions have been barring them from working more, bucking the stereotype of lazy French employees.

On Wednesday, hundreds of employees of DIY stores prevented from working Sundays protested near the offices of French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in a bid to force the government to take a quick decision that would allow them to work weekends.

The protest followed last week’s legal ruling that home improvement stores such as Castorama and Leroy Merlin must shut their stores in the Paris region on Sundays, the traditional day of rest.

A group of DIY store workers calling themselves “Bricoleurs du dimanche” or “Sunday Handymen” took to the streets on Wednesday wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Yes weekend” and carrying flags marked “Students, 100% winners”.

The Bricoleurs du dimanche collective argues that DIY stores which are open on Sunday provide employment for temporary workers and students.

London thrives while Paris shuts down

DIY workers are not the only ones upset by the recent spate of court rulings restricting retail work hours.

Reacting to a Paris appeals court decision to shorten Sephora’s working hours last month, a sales assistant told the AFP press agency that the ruling was killing jobs.

“I want to cry,” said a salesperson who identified herself as Diane. “I see all my co-workers who are going to lose their jobs and who have been ruined by this decision… they have taken away our right to work without even asking us.”

When he ran for president in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign slogan, “Work more to earn more” offered the promise of more flexible working hours in a bid to boost a sluggish economy and address France’s record unemployment rates.

More than six years later and with a new government in power, members of Sarkozy’s UMP party have criticised the current Socialist administration’s “dogmatism” over France’s inflexible work hours.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the UMP candidate for Paris mayor, said the decision to close DIY stores on Sundays was sending shoppers across the Channel to do their Sunday shopping in London. What’s more, Kosciusko-Morizet noted, the restrictive implementation of current laws was costing the French capital 10,000 jobs.

"We have a huge problem of tourists who leave for London to buy (goods)," she told the French RTL radio station. "They leave on Saturday to do their shopping on Sunday in London. More and more are doing so.”

Unions vow to continue the fight

For tourists and expatriates with no families in France, the French mandate to spend the Lord’s Day with the family can be restrictive and inconvenient.

Stores along the majestic Champs Élysée – such as the sprawling Sephora boutique – do brisk business on Sundays with tourists as well as Parisians shopping late into the night in a city where many neighbourhoods are deserted on Sunday evening.

But in some cases, centuries-old legislation – such as a 1906 law protecting “le repos dominical” as a “day of rest” for workers – has made it difficult for retailers to compete in an increasingly competitive global market.

Supporters of the law argue that working late or on Sundays prevents French labourers from spending family time, which could hurt the country’s social fabric.

“We will continue to fight so that the law is upheld,” Karl Ghazi, a leader of CGT, France’s biggest union, told French media outlets last month. “As soon as one company violates the labour laws, the others are forced to follow suit or lose business. So we are forced to systematically go after anyone who breaks the law so that the law remains the same for everyone.”

Ghazi was responding to the Sephora ruling, which forced the closure of the landmark Champs Élysées boutique at 9pm instead of midnight.

Union victory

On Tuesday, the CGT won another victory in its fight for the protection of French working hours when supermarket chain Monoprix agreed to close its stores in Paris and other French cities at 9 pm.

The agreement between Groupe Casino, the owners of Monoprix, and the CGT came despite a 2006 court ruling that allowed for the extra working hours provided it was accompanied by a 25 to 35% wage increase and compensatory time-off for employees who volunteer to work.

Groupe Casino has maintained that it has complied with the wage increase and time-off requirements of the 2006 court ruling. The retail giant maintains that labourers are not forced to work the extra hours and the new ruling will affect 1,500 employees.

Responding to the increasingly contentious debate,  Prime Minister Ayrault has appointed Jean-Paul Bailly, former head of the French postal service, to investigate the "weaknesses of the current system” and “make a list of proposals to the government."

Bailly is expected to hand in his conclusions to the government by the end of November.

Until such time though, shoppers in French cities will have to make sure they do their shopping early, and certainly not on Sundays.


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