The law so many Germans love to hate finally looks about to change: the shop-closing law.
To its opponents, it symbolizes inflexibility in the face of changed economic realities. To its proponents, it is a bulwark protecting cherished labor traditions against rampant consumerism.
Economics Minister Gnther Rexrodt, whose Free Democrats would like to abolish the law outright, has called liberalizing it a "test of the German system's capacity for reform."
Reform of the Ladenschluss law, as it is known, is one of the deregulatory elements of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's economic program, intended to stimulate growth and job creation. Wolfgang Schuble, the Christian Democrats' parliamentary leader, said that last week's party caucus vote, which approved liberalization only after considerable debate, showed the shopping-hours law as "an example of how hard structural reform will be to carry out."
Federal law currently shuts most stores at 6:30 p.m. weekdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays. Exceptions are "long Thursday," when stores may remain open until 8:30, and the first Saturday of the month, "long Saturday," when stores do business until 6. Stores are closed Sundays.
"The world laughs at us," Mr. Rexrodt says. A magazine survey recently found that only Ireland had more restrictive shopping laws than Germany.
There are exceptions, though. Gas stations sold $8 billion worth of groceries here last year. Similarly, shops in train stations and airports are free to sell "travel necessities," broadly interpreted, at all hours throughout the week.
The liberalizing legislation, still in committee, would allow stores to open at 6 a.m., instead of 7, and to stay open until 8 p.m. five nights a week and until 4 on Saturdays.
The Kohl coalition government has taken a salami-slicing approach to the Ladenschluss, which goes back to 1956. Under the current compromise, some hours will be extended, others shortened. States will be able to extend Saturday hours if they wish, however.
A much-cited survey by the Ifo economic research institute in Munich concluded that within three years, liberalization of shopping hours would increase retail sales 2 percent to 3 percent and lead to some 50,000 new jobs, many of them part-time. But the labor unions and the opposition Social Democrats and Greens have the status quo in a bear hug. Smaller retailers, who fear having either to work longer hours themselves, hire more help, or both, are not keen on a change either.
And perhaps surprisingly, even consumers seem relatively content with the status quo. In conjunction with its economic study, Ifo also surveyed public opinion and found that the only age group of consumers in which a majority favored longer hours was those under 19, who wanted more shopping options on Saturdays.
"We worry about what we call the 'Aunt Emma' shops - you know, the little lady on the corner who sells this and that; she knew you when you were 6, and she knows you at 40," says Gerhild Pinkvoss-Mller, a parliamentary aide to the Social Democrats. Extending shop hours "would overburden" Aunt Emmas all over Germany, she maintains.
Last November, the Free Democrats went public with a Cabinet decision to push through a change in the law. But the Christian Democrats couldn't deliver the votes, and the issue was hastily dropped. It was left lying until after three important state parliamentary elections March 24 because Bonn didn't see Ladenschluss as an issue to win with.
Last week, though, the caucus vote among the Christian Democrats and their sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, produced a "clear majority" for change. Thus both the government and the opposition expect the issue to come to a floor vote this week.