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French “work/life balance” in practice: “I’ll resume my protest once I’ve finished my holiday”

The Wall Street Journal

Mon Dieu! Sunday Work Hours Upset French Devotion to Rest

PARIS — Many French people aren’t devout but hold to at least one religious teaching: Sunday is a day of rest.

That practice is under threat from a controversial pro-work law that will allow more French stores to open Sundays. The law was passed by Parliament Thursday. That is causing worry over the decline of leisure in the traditional French lifestyle, piquing many who feel that unindustrious Sundays are something of a birthright.

Some worry that the new law allowing stores to open on Sunday in France will threaten the country’s leisure culture.

Mr. Sarkozy also said that having shops closed on Sundays was backwards in one of the world’s top tourist destinations. He complained that he had to intervene last month, when U.S. first lady Michelle Obama wanted to buy children’s clothes in Paris on Sunday, June 7.

France is one of the last European countries to relax Sunday trading rules. The U.K., where the Sunday break traces back to the Middle Ages, loosened most restrictions in the mid 1990s. In staunchly Catholic Italy, rules were eased more than a decade ago.

Things are also complicated outside the traditionally Christian world. Algerians have taken Thursday and Friday off, the traditional Islamic holidays. But that hindered trade and communication with other countries. So the Algerian government will recommend that, starting next month, businesses close on Fridays and Saturdays.

In France, plenty of groups are campaigning against the change. Labor unions and the Socialist and Communist opposition parties have accused Mr. Sarkozy of trying to dismantle France’s protective labor laws, which stop corporations from overworking their employees. The Socialist Party said it would refer the bill to France’s constitutional court on the grounds that it infringes upon workers’ rights.

The Catholic Church has called for the preservation of the balance between weekdays, devoted to work, and Sundays, devoted to family life, sport or “cultural activities.”

Opposition also came from Mr. Sarkozy’s ruling party, the UMP. Philippe Meunier, a lawmaker for the Lyon region, said France must steer clear of a consumer society in which life revolves around shopping. He successfully lobbied to maintain Sunday shopping restrictions in his constituency in order to preserve the traditional Sunday respite, he said, “an essential element of our way of life.”

In fact, plenty of French people already work Sundays, which became the main day of rest in 1906, following campaigns to give workers a better lifestyle. Some restaurants, tobacconists, museums and stores in tourist areas have been allowed to stay open. And the new law doesn’t declare a total open season on Sunday rest. It lifts some restrictions to Sunday openings of stores in some major cities and tourist areas.

Some store owners are torn between a desire to stay open longer and the tradition of resting.

“We’re going through a crisis and I wouldn’t mind opening for business 50 or so more days a year,” said Malek Ferrah, manager of an Ed Hardy designer clothes shop in Paris. “But some people fought for the right to rest on Sunday and I can’t just ignore it.”

Jean Dionnot, a former boxing champion, founded The Collective of Sunday Friends in 2006 to lobby against modifying Sunday trading rules. He said he was appalled by the new law. “Now people will spend their Sundays wandering in malls,” he said.

Mr. Dionnot said he was pausing his campaign for a while, but would resume his fight in September. “It’s the holiday break now,” he said.

—Susana Ferreira contributed to this article.

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