Jul 6, 2009
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Sarkozy pries open France's door to Sunday shopping

Jul 6, 2009

PARIS (AFP) — President Nicolas Sarkozy reignites France's long-running battle over Sunday shopping this week as lawmakers begin debate on a bill that would allow more French stores to open on the day of rest.

Photo: AFP

A shopping trip by US first lady Michelle Obama and her two daughters to a children's luxury clothes boutique in Paris last month provided Sarkozy with fresh ammunition in his marathon campaign for Sunday trading.

Special arrangements had to be made for Obama and the girls to drop by the Bonpoint shop in Paris' upscale 6th district on that Sunday afternoon in early June.

"Is it normal that on a Sunday, when Madame Obama wants to go shopping in Paris with her girls, that I have to make phone calls to get them to open?" Sarkozy asked.

"How are we supposed to explain to them that we are the only country where shops are closed on Sunday?" he said last week as MPs geared up for the latest legislative fight.

French laws on Sunday commerce are far more restrictive than those in the United States and Britain but less so than in Germany, where special permission is needed for shops to open in Berlin.

In France, no shopping on Sundays has been a rule since a 1906 law consecrated the day of rest although bakeries, butchers and other small shops are allowed to open until noontime.

Keeping retail businesses closed has helped cement the tradition of the Sunday family meal that many in France still hold dear.

But there has been a clamour for change over the past two decades, with recent polls showing a majority of the French believe shops should have the freedom to open on Sundays.

Starting on Tuesday 7 July, the National Assembly will open debate on a new bill, the latest in a string of texts that have been steadfastly opposed by the church, unions, conservatives in Sarkozy's right-wing party and the left.

This latest version will allow shops in designated tourist areas and special commercial zones to open on Sunday and states that employees can work on that day on a voluntary basis -- a provision brought in to address union concerns.

"The world is changing and we need to stop burying our heads in the sand," said Richard Mallie, a deputy from Sarkozy's UMP party and one of the authors of the bill.

Mallie said the bill -- a watered-down version of legislation that failed to win backing six months ago -- will mostly affect retailers in Paris and France's second city of Marseille, where many big-chain stores have chosen to openly defy the current laws and pay hefty fines for doing business on Sundays.

Dismissing French opposition to Sunday shopping as "irrational", Mallie defended the bill as a necessary answer to the huge rise in on-line shopping and demands placed on modern working couples.

Sarkozy was elected in 2007 on a promise to allow more shops to open on Sundays and his government argues that the measure would help cushion the blow that the recession has dealt to the job market.

"We believe we can save 15,000 jobs with this measure," Mallie said.

Paris's temple of shopping -- Galeries Lafayette -- has said it would create between 300 and 400 jobs and boost sales by 10 percent if it were allowed to open on Sundays.

Under the bill, Galeries Lafayette and its nearby rival Printemps would be classified as a tourist zone with permission to open on Sundays. Some 45 percent of their clientele are tourists.

But Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a leading member of the opposition Socialist Party, has come out strongly against classifying all of Paris as a tourist zone.

"Sunday is a day of rest respected by most citizens and it must not be sacrificed by this vision of a deregulated economy that does not take into account the family and personal lives of workers," said Delanoe on Friday 3 July.

Barring surprises, the bill is expected to be adopted later this month.

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