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PARIS — France’s Socialist prime minister has ordered a re-examination of laws restricting stores from opening on Sundays — reviving the debate over Industrial Revolution-era workplace protections that labor unions cherish and consumers often decry.
French law has established Sunday as a mandatory day off to help ensure rest and the quality of life — although some retailers like those in tourist areas get exemptions. Critics say the workplace protections have gone too far, crimping modern lifestyles and putting France at a disadvantage with rival nations.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met with government ministers today on the subject after a court ordered two hardware chains to close 14 of their stores on Sundays — and their employees erupted in protests.
He announced that a former head of Paris’ transport authority and the state-run postal service will report on the complex issue by late November — hoping to defuse a labor crisis as workers and the jobless struggle through France’s economic slump.
“(The) government notes that Sunday rest is an essential principle in terms of protecting workers and social cohesion” while recognizing that “the existence of Sunday work is a reality,” Ayrault’s office said in a noncommittal statement.
Many Roman Catholics and labor groups — who don’t always align politically — agree that “Never on Sunday” is a mantra to maintain when it comes to work. Still, the law, which dates back to 1906, has fanned sporadic debate.
Last week, a court ordered the Leroy Merlin and Castorama hardware chains to close their Paris-area stores on Sundays. Rival Bricorama had sued to make sure they didn’t get an unfair advantage and the court concurred.
But employees at the affected stores were among those growling the loudest over the ruling, insisting that Sunday store hours give them needed extra pay and suit customers who find it hard to shop during the work week.
The employees donned “Yes Week End” T-shirts and mounted petition drives Sunday amid the court’s threat to slap fines of €120,000 ($162,000) on each store that violated the rules. For a variety of reasons — notably that some wrested a last-minute waiver from the government — the stores will temporarily stay open on Sundays, although the issue is far from resolved.
The current debate stems from a 2009 move by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right government that eased back curbs on Sunday store openings. The efforts faced political opposition and resulted in a mish-mash of legal waivers, special-zone exemptions and other loopholes.
Most French consumers are used to the country’s Sunday rhythm: Shopping is restricted to tourist areas or owner-operated, mom-and-pop-style stores. Restaurants are exempt, but even supermarkets only open a half-day — with some exceptions.