For the second time in five years, France will pass a law in 2014 to regulate Sunday trading, prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has announced. Ayrault made the announcement yesterday on receiving a report by Jean-Paul Bailly, the former head of the French postal system and of the Paris metro. Bailly headed a previous commission and drafted a report on the same subject in 2007.
France appears to be going in circles: commission, report, law; commission, report, law, yet the country appears no closer to resolving what should be a relatively simple question. The 2009 law, Ayrault said yesterday, “is illegible, thus not understood”. The present situation was fraught with “unjustified inequality, incoherence between sectors, illegal openings”, he added. Le Monde newspaper said Sunday trading was “a typically French mess”.
In the letter of mission given to Bailly two months ago, Ayrault set limits: “The government refuses any banalisation of work on Sunday: the ban must remain the rule.” It is illegal to work on Sunday, but close to one third of the population already do – in hospitals, police stations, factories, the media.
This headache for the Hollande administration started in the 4th century, when Constantine I decreed Sunday “the day of the Lord” and one of compulsory rest throughout the Roman empire. It became the law of France in 1906.
Nicolas Sarkozy promised to liberalise Sunday trading, but conservative Catholics forced him to water down the law passed in 2009.
At present, there are two “zones of exception” for Sunday trading: tourist zones, of which there are seven in Paris, and “perimeters of use of special consumption”, known by the acronym “Puce” – which also means “flea”. Puce employees receive double wages for working on Sundays; tourist zone employees do not. Sunday labour must be on a voluntary basis and all volunteers must receive double wages, the Bailly report says. Employees are required to certify twice annually that bosses have not coerced them into working on “the day of the Lord”.
Bailly also advocates replacing the Puce zones with newly defined zones bearing the acronyms Pact and Pacc. The reform is billed as a “simplification”.
There seems to be no logic for exceptions granted or refused until now. Airport shops are allowed to remain open on Sunday, those in railway stations are not. Furniture stores – mainly Ikea – and garden shops may trade, do-it-yourself centres cannot.
A revolt by Castorama and Leroy Merlin, prominent DIY chains, revived Sunday trading as an issue in September. They defied a court order to close on Sunday, preferring to pay substantial fines and launching a “Sunday handymen’s collective” to influence public opinion.
Yesterday’s report suggests the DIY centres may open on Sundays for the next 18 months “to pacify the situation in the Paris region” – if they drop lawsuits against the French state.
The ban on Sunday work seems to contradict the government’s stated goals of greater flexibility, job creation and and encouraging business. For the past three years, a consortium of trade unions known by the acronym “Clic-P” has led a judiciary guerrilla war against shops that dare open on Sunday. Clic-P has defeated Apple, Uniqlo, the BHV and the Galeries Lafayette. They forced the cosmetics emporium Sephora on the Champs-Élysées to close at 9pm instead of midnight.
The former socialist minister and mayor of Lille Martine Aubry is ideologically close to Clic- P. “Dominical rest is a dike that must not be broken,” she said. “If consumerism is chosen over the family, I will make a stand.” It was Aubry who drafted the law on the 35-hour working week, which economists say has dragged down French competitiveness.
The title of the Bailly report is an apt summation of France’s quandary: “Towards a society that adapts while retaining its values.” It makes only one concession. All shops will be allowed to open on 12 Sundays a year, instead of five at present. Seven dates will be chosen by the local mayor, five dates will be chosen by the businesses themselves, but they must give advance notice to authorities.
When Ayrault was mayor of Nantes, he refused all requests for Sunday trading, as was his prerogative.