Conservative supporters hail the law as a reformist boost for France’s recession-stalled economy. But detractors on both the left and right just as energetically decry it as a vulgar consumerist assault on tradition, families and even French democracy. “We’ve got better things to propose to our fellow citizens than a life of commuting, sleeping and buying,” lamented Andre Lardeux, one of many senators from the ruling Union for a Popular Majority party who defied President Nicolas Sarkozy by voting against his pet law to liberalize Sunday commerce.
Indeed, resistance to the bill was so high among conservatives that leftist opponents seemed surprised when they weren’t joined by enough rightist defectors to defeat it. “The Senate has been transformed into a kind of chamber of followers with only one liberty: the one to say yes,” said Leftist Radical party Senator FranÇois Fortassin after the legislation eked through with a 165 to 159 score.
Tiny though it may be, that victory promises to throw countless shop doors open every Sunday around France from here on out. The law – which supporters hope will go into effect later this year – designates about 500 spots with “tourism interests” that may start doing business on Sundays to exploit the presence of vacationing visitors. It similarly liberalizes trading in border regions where, in some areas, French stores that close one day a week lose out to rivals across the frontier who are allowed to stay open les dimanches.
Finally, the law also legalizes what, in fact, is an already common (albeit illicit) practice in shops and malls clustered around Paris, Lille and Marseille – though limits it to those areas. The text calls for Sunday work to be left optional for employees and paid higher than other days, but opponents say those stipulations will be ignored once bosses start ordering employees fearful of losing their jobs to take on dominical work behind closed doors, and on management’s terms.
Mais non!, conservative backers retort. Theirs is a pragmatic, optional reform for a finite set of businesses interested in embracing it, they promise – not at all a mercantile free-for-all À l’amÉricaine in which any shop or company owner can treat Sunday like any other day of the week. “This is only putting a bit of order in a confused situation, and is in no manner a change to [our] model of civilization,” the bill’s sponsor, Labor Minister Xavier Darcos, promised senators going into their vote in the wee hours of July 23. “If the goal of this text were to generalize work on Sundays, I’d never have backed it.”
Sunday shopping a threat to French civilization? If Darcos’ assurances sound excessive, they only reflect the resistance his Sarkozy-mandated bill has provoked. Leftists continue to assail its move to undermine a 1907 law prohibiting Sunday trading as only the first step toward the very generalization of travail dominical that Darcos denies. They also vow to challenge the law before France’s Constitutional Council on the somewhat ironic grounds that by allowing only some shops to operate Sundays, it violates the rights of employees who may want to work on Sunday but whose shops are not covered by the reform.
Dissenting conservatives, meanwhile, denounce the law as a threat to an array of social and cultural traditions rooted in the seventh day being one of rest. They warn that family gatherings, leisure activities and even church attendance will suffer greatly as people are forced to don the dominical yoke of labor. Where will the next Renoir get his inspiration for another Bal du Moulin de la Galette? What would Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte be without the Sunday bit? And how to defend the colors against the neighborhood rival if your goalkeeper and best center forward are down at the mall selling garden furniture?
France – or at least parts of it – will soon find out. And how will a society famous for being rabidly protective of its leisure time, long vacations and nominal 35-hour workweek respond? Probably with a Gallic shrug. Polls show 55% of French people oppose the law and 42% support it. Still, 40% of respondents say they’d heed a boss’s call to work Sunday if it meant making more money, while another 30% say they’d welcome the chance to shop on Sundays.
That’s the good news for Team Sarkozy. The bad is that polls also show the public already suspects what economists are warning about the change: that in contrast to the government’s promises, Sunday trading will neither significantly increase economic activity nor create new jobs.