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To France now, where stores that want to open on Sunday have to meet strict requirements. Since 1906, Sunday has been deemed a collective day of rest in France. The law allows stores to open only under very specific conditions, for example if they're in a high-tourist area. Sunday work is also tightly controlled. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports that these days some people question the sense of that tradition, given a languishing economy and a 24/7 world.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A giant banner stretched across the opening of home improvement store Bricorama reads open Monday through Saturday. It's unfair we can't serve you on Sunday. Bricorama had to shut its doors on Sunday after unions filed and won a lawsuit. A Paris court recently upheld the ban on Sunday and night work. Inside Bricorama, 42-year-old Jean Martinez says he's earning $300 less a month now. All the staff is furious, he says.

JEAN MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) No one was forcing us to work. Everyone was happy, employees, bosses, customers. We earned overtime and got an extra day off to boot. The only party that wasn't happy was that wretched union.

BEARDSLEY: Stores which choose to flout the Sunday work ban are fined $135,000 per day. Some of the larger home-improvement chains went ahead and paid it to stay open. Bricorama has filed an appeal.

STEPHANE FUSTEC: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: On the eastern edge of Paris looms the monolithic headquarters of the CGT union, no doubt impressive in its heyday in the 1970s, the building seems a little worn today. But general secretary Stephane Fustec insists the union's ideas are not passe. He says a collective day off is even more important in today's world, where family links are weakening.

FUSTEC: (Through interpreter) Everything is deregulated now and we live in an increasingly individualistic society so we need this one fixed day a week where everyone can come together and share experiences and life.

BEARDSLEY: Why should China be our model, asks Fustec.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: This old video shows families enjoying vacation and Sundays off. While many Americans may head to the mall, the Sunday lunch is still sacrosanct in France. In Paris, you see many people carrying bouquets of flowers to decorate the lunch table. But many young people don't feel bound by such traditions. And with unemployment at its highest in a decade, many say it's senseless not to let people work if they want to.

So far the French government has supported the court's ruling. One politician said the greatest civilizations always have one day of the week when trade does not take place. Jean Yves Naudet is a professor of economics at the University of Marseille Aix-en-Provence, and a member of the Association of Catholic Economists.

JEAN YVES NAUDET: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: There are good arguments on both sides, he says, but Naudet questions whether economics should be the only consideration in determining the social structure of a nation. Tourism officials in Paris fear losing visitors to London, where the Sunday shopping debate was resolved 20 years ago.

A recent poll showed two-thirds of the French are in favor of allowing stores to open on Sundays, as long as employees aren't forced to work. Back at the Bricorama, father of three Alexandre Gabriel is buying some supplies. He calls the Sunday work restrictions crazy.

ALEXANDRE GABRIEL: You can still go and buy some tools, some nails and a hammer, and have a good lunch with your family. You know, I think it can still be done. In fact, you're more relaxed because you don't have to worry and rush everything in on Saturday.

BEARDSLEY: Gabriel thinks things are changing and there will be a breakthrough. We French are very conservative people, he says. We need time to get used to new ideas. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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