There’s a fight going on for the soul of France. Since 1906, Sunday has been deemed a collective day of rest in the country, and French law only allows stores to open on Sundays under very specific conditions — for example if they’re in a high tourist area. Sunday work is also tightly controlled.
But some people are questioning the sense of such a tradition in a languishing economy and 24/7 world.
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 Sundays after unions filed and won a lawsuit. A Paris court recently upheld the ban on Sunday work.
Inside Bricorama, 42-year-old employee Jean Martinez says he’s earning $300 less a month now. The staff is furious, he says.
“No one was forcing us to work. Everyone was happy — employees, customers. We earned overtime and got an extra day off to boot,” Martinez says. “The only party that wasn’t happy was that wretched union.”
Stores that 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.
On the eastern edge of Paris looms the monolithic headquarters of what Martinez calls “that wretched union,” the General Confederation of Labor, known as the CGT. No doubt impressive in its heyday in the 1970s, the building seems a little worn today.
But Stephan Fustec, general secretary of the CGT, insists the union’s ideas are not passé. He says a collective day off is even more important in today’s world where family links are weakening.
“Everything is deregulated now. We live in an increasingly individualistic world where we sit in front of screens and have no time together,” Fustec says. “So we need a framework with at least one day off that everyone can share.”
“Why should China be our model?” he adds.
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.
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.
He says there are good arguments on both sides, but he 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 four Alexandre Gabriel is buying some supplies. He calls the Sunday work restrictions crazy.
“You can still go and buy some tools — some nails and hammer — and have a good lunch with your family. I think it can still be done,” he says. “In fact, you’re more relaxed because you don’t have to worry and rush everything on Saturday.”
Gabriel thinks things are changing and there will be a breakthrough.
“We French are a very conservative people,” he says. “We need time to get used to new ideas.”