Fight grows in Europe to safeguard a secular Sabbath

Conscience trumps convenience in push to open Sunday shopping.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Shops-Élysée: French leaders have scuttled plans to open Sundays for business.
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    German shoppers: This shoe store in Berlin must remain closed on Sundays. A German court in 2004 upheld Sunday selling restrictions, declaring the day ‘sacrosanct.’
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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.

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.

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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."

Croatia had overturned bans on Sunday trading in 1994, but then slammed the door shut to Sunday shopping last month, when a new ban took effect. The change is seen as a concession to the Catholic Church. Major retailers have appealed, saying the change could lead to 7,000 jobs lost and score of store closures at a time when the Croatia can ill afford the blow.

Until recently, Sunday shopping also split Slovenia, which, unlike neighboring Poland and Hungary, didn't adopt a "classical capitalistic approach" after communism, says Stefan Skledar of the Institute of Macroeconomic Analysis and Development in Ljubljana. When the Slovenian parliament allowed Sunday shopping in the early 2000s, a war exploded between employers and trade unions that resulted in a compromise: Sunday trading is allowed, but its high labor cost restrains it. "Unions succeeded in preventing the overexploitation of workers," Mr. Skledar says.

Conscience over convenience?

Rising unemployment and economic instability have further dampened governments' ability to liberalize store hours, Skledar says. "In times of crisis, when people are suffering, solidarity is more important than in times of affluence....People need more protection, not less."

Earlier this month, church leaders called on the European Union Parliament to declare a work-free Sunday an "essential pillar" of Europe. The parliament is slated to vote on the issue in May.

"The current economic and financial crisis has made it even more evident that not every aspect of human life can be subject to the laws of the market," stated a declaration from representatives of the Protestant church in Germany, European Catholic bishops, and the Church of England. "In fact, consumerism is not a model either for a sustainable economy or for healthy human development."

Recent surveys have shown that most of the French support Sunday trading, but backers of the idea say Sundays will probably stay quiet for now, even if many stores openly flout the ban.

"Six months ago, it would have passed without the slightest problem," says Jean Michel Silberstein, of the National Council on Shopping Centers, which represents 700 shopping centers and 34,000 retailers throughout France and supports Sarkozy's liberalization plan. "But the financial crisis struck."

With the crisis comes social discontent and fear "born out of the perception that the government is doing everything it can to help businesses and banks, but nothing to help the people who suffer," Mr. Silberstein says, adding that the Sarkozy government is right to focus on appeasing unions rather than pushing through potentially explosive reform.

"When they feel they're being unfairly treated, the French take to the streets," he says, "And we know how social movements can degenerate. We have seen them degenerate in other countries."

In Greece, after the riots in Athens this past winter, shopkeepers asked that exceptions could be made to allow stores to stay open on Sundays to recoup the heavy losses incurred during demonstrations.

But trade unionists effectively vetoed the measure by physically preventing shoppers from entering stores, forcing large department stores to close temporarily.

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