Measure Would Allow French Stores To Open Sunday

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By law, retail stores in France are not allowed to open on Sundays, unless they are located in tourist zones and cater to sporting, recreational or cultural activities. A proposed law would give all businesses the right to open Sunday in the four largest French cities. But unions and small storeowners are opposed.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And at a time people are worried about keeping their jobs, some in France are praying they don't have to work, at least on Sundays. French law bans most businesses from opening on Sunday. A law now being considered in parliament would give more shops the right to stay open that day. Angry opponents say it would threaten an important part of the French way of life, as Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: One of the big differences between, let's say, Fifth Avenue and the Champs-Elysees on a Sunday is that most of the stores on the grand shopping street of Paris are closed. Despite the crowds of potential buyers, under French law, only stores in tourist areas with a recreational, cultural or sporting event are allowed to open their doors on this traditional day of rest. Two years ago, luxury bag maker Louis Vuitton actually created a museum on its top floor so that it could open on Sundays, and the country's workaholic president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has often joked about what he calls a French peculiarity.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: You've got to love the Champs-Elysees on a Sunday, said Sarkozy. It's fantastic. One sidewalk is considered touristy, so all the stores are open. And on the other sidewalk, the stores are all closed. Try explaining that one to tourists. But now the French government, joined by the retailers associations, wants to change the law. A bill has been submitted to parliament that would allow all stores to open on Sunday in the touristy areas of the nation's four largest cities: Paris, Lyon, Lille and Marseille. But already shopkeepers unions are preparing their defenses. Eric Cherare(ph) is a union member.

Mr. ERIC CHERARE (French Shopkeepers Union Member): (Through Translator) What's hiding behind this proposition to permit all the big chains to open is that it will discriminate against all the small shops who can't afford to hire someone on Sunday. This law will force them out of business and destroy thousands of jobs.

BEARDSLEY: But the brouhaha is not just about protecting small shopkeepers. Polls show the nation is very attached to its collective day off. A recent television report looked back nostalgically at a hundred years of Sundays at rest.

(Soundbite of French television report)

BEARDSLEY: The law has nothing to do with religion. It was passed in 1906 after the official separation of the Catholic Church and the French state. The law compensated workers following the Industrial Revolution that had kept factories churning away 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Thanks to the mandated day of rest, says this commentator, leisure activities began to take prominence in public life, and the traditional family Sunday lunch flourished.

Standing on the Champs-Elysees smoking a cigarette, 60-year-old Collette Mishou(ph) says that's all changed today.

COLLETTE MISHOU: (Through Translator) Nobody does Sunday lunch anymore. It blocks your whole day. I live in the suburbs, where there's nothing to do on Sunday. So why not be able to come to Paris and see a museum and do a little shopping? It would liven things up.

BEARDSLEY: The government knows it has to strike the right balance or there could be a backlash. For the French working class, Sundays off rank up there with a 35-hour work week. Luc Chatel, Sarkozy's undersecretary of commerce, spoke about the legislation on French television.

(Soundbite of French television broadcast)

Mr. LUC CHATEL (French Undersecretary of Commerce): (Through Translator) This is about liberty. No one can be forced to work. But those who want to will be able to. And in big towns, where people live hectic lives and can only shop on the weekend, stores will be open.

BEARDSLEY: Back on the Champs-Elysees, 30-year-old Kevin Dovie(ph), who works as a sales clerk in a clothing chain store, says he doesn't think the French will go for it.

Mr. KEVIN DOVIE (French Sales Clerk): I have a little girl, and I spend all my Sundays with her. So it's not worth it to me to lose that day, even if I am paid overtime.

BEARDSLEY: Dovie says the French don't have the same ideas about work as the Anglo-Saxon countries do. You might like to earn more money, he says, referring to the Americans and British, but we French are not about to sacrifice our Sundays. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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