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Fight grows in Europe to safeguard a secular Sabbath

Conscience trumps convenience in push to open Sunday shopping.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2009

Shops-Élysée: French leaders have scuttled plans to open Sundays for business.

Michel Euler/AP

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Cecile Feit holds her Sundays dear. It's the day for romps in the park and family lunches, not for running her children's toy boutique.

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When Ms. Feit learned of a proposal to allow shopping centers to stay open Sundays, she protested. The plan, she says, would kill family-run businesses like hers that cannot afford the extra staff. "It's slavery," she says. "There is no respect for people anymore."

Two years ago, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was elected on a platform of adopting free-market economics. Allowing Sunday shopping would let people "work more and earn more," he said.

Indeed, until recently, the American model of 24/7 retail was becoming more popular across Europe. But the downturn has prompted a backlash against unregulated capitalism – from freewheeling banks to liberal hours. Business is hardly booming, but now more than ever Europeans are clinging to their day of rest.

"A society that has no time framework risks falling apart," André Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris, said recently, as the financial crisis hit Europe. "Has making money become the cornerstone of everyone's existence?"

Massive opposition from an unlikely front of leftist trade unions, members of Sarkozy's own conservative party, and Catholic bishops prompted the government to back down from the plan.

From the family lunch tradition in France to the afternoon walk in the forest in Germany, the Sunday tradition of rest remains entrenched in the culture of the continent. In Germany, one of the most regulated markets – along with those in Switzerland and Austria – the highest court in 2004 upheld Sunday sales restrictions by declaring Sunday "sacrosanct," which means frozen pizzas remain largely off-limits on Sundays, not to mention late at nights on weekdays.

Capitalism's shine tarnished

But over the past few years, Europe has faced a push from politicians to abandon the tradition to follow the American retail model. "Sunday is an extra day of growth," Mr. Sarkozy explained, when he announced his plan to overturn a 102-year-old law legally sanctioning Sunday rest. "It is extra purchasing power and other countries are doing it."

England took the lead in embracing the Sunday shopping culture in 1994, and was soon followed by Sweden and Spain. Once freed from communist dictatorships, countries like Hungary and Croatia joined the trend. In Roman Catholic Poland, Sunday shopping has become a national pastime. Now, with the issue dividing much of the Continent, the tide is shifting.

"American capitalism used to look great – you have lower corporate taxes, more freedom, it's easier to create your own business – but the recession has put a damper on it, and people are asking 'What is the point?' Has it made people richer?" asks Stephen Miller, author of "The Peculiar Life of Sundays." "Now, Europeans want to distinguish their capitalism from an American version they see as too frantic, too excessive. They want to protect their day off, they want to keep their social model."