Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Is there more to Sunday than shopping?

Nicolas Sarkozy clearly doesn't think there is. When the Obama family visited Paris one Sunday earlier this year, he reported himself to be 'hugely embarrassed' that he had to make special arrangements for Michelle and the girls when they wanted to shop at an upmarket children's clothing shop. And of course loosening the restrictions on Sunday trading was part of his election manifesto. So just what's a bling bling president to do?

A quick run down of Sunday shopping in France as he is spoke: at the moment, food shops may open until midday (mais of course; how else would we all get our meat, our bread and tarts and the ready roast chickens that come complete with their roast potatoes?), but otherwise, basically, Sunday trading is verboten. Oh, unless, that is, you happen to have applied for a dérogation (dispensation), or you are a florist, or you hire out DVDs, or ... Or unless you're in an area designated as touristique, in which case you may sell books, or sporting goods, or 'items of a cultural nature', though not clothes or DIY stuff. Or unless it's one of the five Sundays that any commerce may open, given the authority of its maire. Or unless you're just a small, owner-run business with no staff, in which case you can open when the hell you like. Get the picture? Yes, it's a bit complicated. Some, though not I (more on that in a minute), would call it archaic and so consider that change was long overdue. Enter M. Sarkozy.

His first attempt was - how can I put it - not a success. There was massive opposition from both left and right, with large numbers of the ruling party decrying it as an attack on family values and the various socialist parties as an attack on workers' rights. It wasn't, however, wholly unsupported: one morning on Europe 1 breakfast news I heard a politician loudly proclaiming his inalienable right to take his family to IKEA on Sunday afternoons so that they could spend 'quality time' together. Hmm. Family love among the Billy bookcases and meatballs. Bet you're glad you don't live with him ...

So, another, watered down, version was cobbled together. Some would say compromise; many would say fudge. Shops in three of France's biggest metropolitan areas - Paris, Marseille, Lille (plus, originally, Lyon, until its UMP MPs kicked up a stink ...) - will be allowed to open on Sundays; employees will have to right to refuse to work, and employers will have to pay those who choose to work double time. In addition, local officials in areas deemed to be 'of interest to tourists' (which, let's face it, covers much of France) will be able to authorise Sunday opening - but in this case employers will be able to tell their employees which day they can take off and will be under no obligation to pay overtime. Very fair. Not.

Last week, the National Assembly voted in favour of the new bill. Just. Today, it's gone to Senate, the upper house. Debate is expected to last three days, with voting on Thursday. All the expectations are that it will go through, though this being France I wouldn't for one moment expect something as petty as a new law to be the end of the matter ...

According to opinion polls, the country is split pretty much down the middle. Interestingly, though, a quick trawl of a couple of Anglophone forums suggests that the vast majority of English speakers is hugely in favour of Sunday opening; two of the biggest grouses amongst Anglo Saxon immigrants seem to be not being able to shop till they drop on Sundays (and, in smaller towns, Mondays), and not being able to shop till they drop at lunchtime, when most shops, except the very largest grandes surfaces, close for two hours. What many immigrants may not know is that le repos dominical is regarded here as something of a divine right, acquired as it was in 1906 as part of a whole collective of workers' rights including paid holidays, state health insurance and the right to strike. Sundays are for family, and long lunches, and (for some) church, and for simply chilling. No wonder it provokes such passion: let it go, and you're on the slippery slope.

Personally, I like the fact that most shops aren't open on Sundays. I can't think of much worse than spending the day buying furniture or paint or, heaven forfend, clothes (I'm not exactly renowned for my love of buying clothes or indeed for my sartorial elegance, being happiest in shorts and tee shirt. And I cheerfully admit, much to the horror of friends, that although I've never set foot in a chic boutique, I'm not averse to scouring the rummage stalls in the markets and the rails at Emmaus ...). I don't have family, and I'm not a christian, but I see no good reason whatsoever why we shouldn't have one day a week without being faced with materialism and consumerism; I don't actually care which day of the week it is, so long as we all share the same one. Ah, but (M. Sarkozy would say) we need to stimulate the economy and increase growth. Well actually, I don't share that view either. My sympathies lie rather more with the décroissance movement - which is alive and flourishing here, and even sports its own monthly magazine. But best not get me started on that one.

Suffice it to say that you won't be finding me in the meatball queue on Sunday afternoons.

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