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No Liberté on French Sundays despite joblessness

Published on Sunday, 14 Jul 2013
A 1906 law requires most non-food retailers in France to close on Sunday, the “Lord’s Day”. While the legislation was loosened in 2009 to allow some stores in tourist-frequented regions – such as this Uniqlo store near the Garnier Opera house in Paris – and in specific areas around large cities to open on Sundays, it remains largely restrictive. (AFP)
Two young unemployed French citizens talk with a career adviser at a local agency for employment in Marseille. French unemployment hit a high of 3,264,500 in May. (Reuters)
A visitor enters a job centre, also known as Pole Emploi – the French national employment agency – in Toulouse. (Bloomberg

 PARIS:  Jean-Claude Bourrelier is mad that in the land of Liberté, he doesn’t have the freedom to keep his home-improvement stores in and around Paris open on Sundays.

Even in the face of record French joblessness, the chief executive officer of Bricorama says he’s being prevented by unions and the Socialist government of President Francois Hollande from keeping 31 of his outlets open on that day. His efforts to get willing employees to work Sundays for extra pay were blocked by a court decision in a case filed by a union. His appeals to the government have fallen on deaf ears.

“I went to the labour ministry recently,” said Bourrelier, 66. “They don’t want to change the law. The president is very nice, but it’s a government of civil servants working for civil servants,” and “labour unions are much stronger in France than in other countries.”

The executive’s struggle tells a tale of restrictive labour rules that discourage entrepreneurship and job creation even as Hollande seeks to reverse an economic slump that has left more than 3.2 million people jobless. For Bourrelier, the government’s intransigence belies Hollande’s pledge to rekindle the economy with a “radical simplification” in regulations.

A 1906 law requires most non-food retailers in France, from Benetton clothing shops and Printemps department stores to Bourrelier’s Bricorama, to close on the “Lord’s Day”.  While the legislation was loosened in 2009 to allow some stores in tourist-frequented regions and in specific areas around large cities to open on Sundays, it remains largely restrictive.

Family Time

“I’m not in favour of nibbling away at the Sunday break bit by bit, because it’s an important part of the life of workers in France,” Labour Minister Michel Sapin said on RTL radio on May 23, after a group of Socialist lawmakers called for a further easing of the law. “Most French people don’t want to work on Sundays; they want to see their family, rest a bit.”

Labour unions object to what they say is “excessive consumerism”, arguing that Sundays should be for leisure, prayer and the family.

Bricorama, which began opening its stores on Sundays, was forced to shut the ones in the Paris region after Force Ouvriere union took it to court last year. The union argued that Sunday openings create precarious jobs for temporary workers, cap wages for weekday workers and destroy small retailers in city centres.

“Sunday openings must be stopped to favour weekday, full-time jobs,” said Christophe Le Comte, a leader at the union. “It’s creating neither jobs nor wealth; it’s just spreading activity over seven days, and employees and customers end up paying for the extra fixed costs.”

In Favour

Bourrelier disputes that. He says the court ruling forced him to let go 200 people through attrition.

“My problem was that I had too many volunteers to work on Sundays,” for extra pay, he said.

Kamel Loudahi, a Bricorama floor manager in Chatillon, France, concurs.

“We want to work on Sundays,” he said. “When we work on Sundays, we get comp time off and we’re paid double the normal rate. It’s financially appealing to us. Clients also like finding stores open, so everybody is happy.”

According to a CSA poll for the business federation FMB released in April, about 52 per cent of the French are in favour of Sunday store openings for the home-improvement sector. For residents of the Paris region, the approval stood at 74 per cent.

Sunday shopping is no longer taboo in other European Union countries. Germany eased national retail restrictions in 2006, leaving the decision to its 16 state governments. The Czech Republic has no restrictions at all.

Champs Elysees

A walk on Sunday down Paris’s famed Avenue des Champs Elysees, a tourist hub visited by more than 100 million people a year, shows how France’s Byzantine laws tie retailers in knots.

Restaurants and cultural venues – such as movie halls – can remain open, while most other retailers are shut. LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton battled unions that tried to close its flagship store on the avenue Sundays – and won. It convinced a judge that the rule should be waived because the fashion museum on its upper floor made it a “place of cultural significance”.

The Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores near the Opera Garnier in Paris are also forced to close on Sundays, missing out on business from tourists who frequent the area.

Maurizio Borletti, the head of the Borletti Group, which together with Deutsche Bank bought Printemps from PPR in 2006, says France makes things hard for retailers.

Comparing the store’s business with that in London, he said at a conference this month that “there’s less flexibility, higher labour and social charges, and one less day of trade since stores have to be closed on Sundays.”

Competitive Disadvantage

For Bricorama, the Sunday-closure law comes with an additional twist.

Under the law, furniture stores such as Ikea and gardening retailers can remain open, while home-improvement stores have to shut unless they are located in a limited number of areas identified by local-government representatives, who also give a limited number of waivers per year.

For Bricorama, which employs about 4,500 people across Europe, 31 of its 95 French stores don’t qualify. The closure of the stores in the Paris region translates into a 5 per cent loss in annual revenue as the shops used to make as much as 20 per cent of their sales on that day, Bourrelier said.

The shortfall has been exacerbated by the economic slump and bad weather, which caused the €24.5 billion (HK$245 billion) French home- improvement market to slide by about 7.5 per cent in the first half, he said. Bricorama shares have fallen 11 per cent this year, giving it a market value of €212 million.

What drives the self-made man even crazier is that his larger rivals, including Leroy Merlin and Castorama, have managed to remain open on Sundays, finding legal loopholes, getting waivers or ignoring the Sunday ban.

“Either we can all be open, or we all remain closed,” Bourrelier said. “It’s a matter of justice.”

(Bloomberg)

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