Sunday shopping the frontline in France's work-life balance war

Tue Jul 30, 2013 7:38am EDT
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By Natalie Huet

PARIS (Reuters) - Every Sunday in Paris, crowds of tourists clamber up the hill of Montmartre towards the whitewashed Sacre-Coeur Basilica, pausing by the clothing and gift stores that dot its cobbled streets.

Under France's Byzantine rules on Sunday trading, those at the top of the hill are in a designated tourist area and so can open, but those at the bottom cannot, and risk a fine of 6,000 euros ($8,000) if they do.

"It's absurd," said Sylvie Fourmond, head of a grouping of 180 "off-zone" shops around the Moulin Rouge end of Montmartre that are increasingly defying the law on Sundays.

"To get to the top of the hill tourists don't come by helicopter with parachutes. They walk up our streets and peer into our windows," she said.

The battle over Sunday trading in this neighborhood - once home to artists including Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali - is part of a broader fight in France between the champions of deregulation and those defending a deep-rooted social model that treasures leisure time.

The unions that fiercely guard France's 35-hour working week and the churches of this mostly Catholic country oppose Sunday trading. But as recession bites, public attitudes are shifting.

A survey by pollster Ipsos last November showed 63 percent of the French favored looser Sunday shopping rules. Several hundred hardware store workers even took to the streets in May demanding the right to work on Sunday and chanting "Yes Week-End" in a play on U.S. President Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign slogan.

Across Europe there is a diverse patchwork of Sunday trading laws, with Britain pushing ahead with a broad loosening of rules in 1994, while Germany and Austria still mostly prohibit Sunday opening. A number of recession-hit countries have recently softened their stance, including staunchly Catholic Italy last year and Greece only this month.   Continued...