Black Friday, long mocked in France, gets a second glance amid economic woes

Europe generally has long opposed Sunday shopping hours. In France, recent court rulings upholding bans are prompting sharp debate about the limits of such regulation.  

By , Staff writer

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    People walk past the Printemps department store in Paris, April 5, 2013. Most stores in France are closed on Sundays, but recent court rulings are prompting sharp debate about the limits of such regulation.
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Every Black Friday is a showcase of the dark side of American consumerism: the scenes of shoppers camping overnight in frigid climes outside department stores, the fights between adults over a flat-screen television set.

These are images that often reassure European nations, where shopping overall is much more regulated – and old-fashioned.

Attitudes are changing on the Continent, however. France is in the thick of a debate in the wake of several recent court hearings that upheld bans on Sunday and late-night shopping. With this year's Black Friday coming as much of Europe remains stuck in economic stagnation, more people here are questioning state restrictions on store operating hours – particularly on Sundays.

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To stem the growing protest, the Socialist administration of President François Hollande commissioned a report to study the impact of the Sunday day of rest – due out next week.

While it is unlikely that France will undo a custom that's been firmly in place since 1906, some in Paris wish the country would reconsider, especially in an era of 24-hour online shopping. “In the 21st century, we need more choice to shop if we want,” said Bernard Sfeir, a business strategy director in Paris, standing last Sunday on a city street where every store was shuttered.

This is not the first time that France, or other countries in Europe, have considered rolling back restrictions on Sunday capitalism. But each time the question arises, it turns into a national philosophical debate that pits religious groups and unions against commerce, young against old, and families against singles.

The current French law came into being following widespread demonstrations staged by workers throughout the country between 1898 and 1906, says Robert Beck, the author of a book on the history of Sunday in France. In secular France, however, Sunday is seen not as “God's day,” but as a day of rest, family, and above all, a way to protect France from the shop-till-you-drop ethos of the US, which no day illustrates better than Black Friday.

The long-leisurely Sunday lunch in France – and even the late night at friends' homes Saturday – are made possible by the lack of other pressing things to do, such as buying an electric drill or new winter boots for the kids on Sunday morning, says Mr. Beck, who supports what he calls “collective rest.” “The majority of society rests on this day. This means we have free time in common, and can share it,” he says.

But the French appear to more openly embrace American and British styles of commerce. A recent poll by the firm BVA showed that seven out of 10 French favor the idea of opening stores on Sundays (although 56 percent also say they themselves wouldn't want to work Sundays.)

Mr. Sfeir says he'd prefer not to have the government impose Sunday on him as a family day. As a father of two with a busy job, he comes home on Fridays exhausted. The last thing he wants to do, he says, is head out on Saturday to do all the errands he can't get done during the work week. For him, Saturday is the day he'd like to spend with his family. Sunday is the day when he wouldn't mind ticking off the other to-do’s on his list.

The French exception

France might be “exceptional” on many fronts, from its 35-hour workweek to its tough stance against the invasion of Hollywood. But when it comes to Sundays off, it fits in with a larger pattern in Europe, where many nations regulate Sunday store openings. Germany, for example, limits shopping on most Sundays. During federal elections in September, employees of one chain store off a main Berlin thoroughfare carried out a sit-in to protest the fact that the store was open, forcing workers into weekend shifts. 

Britain, on the other hand, loosened its rules in 1994. Italy and Spain also reduced restrictions with an eye to helping the economy. This fall, Greece launched a new program to try to boost consumer spending and create new jobs, in a country where the unemployment rate sits at over a quarter of the population. Pushing back on rules in place since 1908, department stores are now open seven Sundays a year, and independent locales can open any Sunday, as long as they gain permission from local authorities. The program has been highly contentious, garnering criticism from the Greek Orthodox Church and independent retailers.

The debate re-emerged in France this fall, after unions filed lawsuits against two “Home-Depot-like” stores for opening their doors, and defying restrictions, on Sundays. They were ordered to shut down, angering workers who get paid more for Sunday shifts. In another case, the cosmetics store Sephora was also ordered to close its doors earlier than it had been, by 9 p.m., on France's most famous and heavily touristed street, the Champs-Elysees.

Figuring out what can actually be accomplished on Sunday can confuse the most veteran Paris shopper. On one recent Sunday, a flea market was set up in the center of a neighborhood in central Paris, with Parisians and foreigners happily buying goods that ranged from vintage mirrors to faux fur coats. But every store on the streets feeding into the market was shut down. Some pedestrians carried shopping bags, but they were from stores located in “tourist” zones, which means they were allowed to remain open.

In fact, it is precisely this complex set of regulations that has fueled the governmental review. Supermarkets can open until 1 p.m. Sundays, but hypermarkets cannot open at all. Shops selling gardening equipment or furniture can also do business. It's such a hodgepodge that new legislation is required, says Bernard Vivier, the director of a French research institute on labor issues, the IST.

“We cannot stay in this situation, it is incomprehensible,” he says, although he does support a Sunday day of rest: “Sunday is not like any other day.”

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