No Rest for the Weary

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy McNicoll

Nicolas Sarkozy wants to make working on the Sabbath legal. God help him.

If Nicolas Sarkozy were God (and many of his critics suggest he'd like to be), you can be sure he wouldn't rest on the seventh day of Creation. France's so-called omnipresident didn't shy away last month from a whirlwind trip to the Holy Land to broker a pause, if not an end, to the fighting in Gaza. He even presumed to co-chair with Tony Blair a summit of dignitaries assembled to rethink the future of capitalism. But there was a key challenge Sarkozy couldn't handle: the fight over shopping on Sundays. In France, it's basically against the law to work on the seventh day, and Sarkozy had committed himself to changing that.

But a third grueling attempt was stymied in January, and the Sabbath disappeared from the parliamentary agenda. Again. Next try: March. Maybe.

This is no trivial setback. The idea of keeping shops open on Sundays is, symbolically, at the core of Sarkozy's economic ideology: ennobling the idea of work while giving people more choices about how to make and spend their money. His approach is the antithesis of the ill-conceived 35-hour workweek of the 1990s, which was predicated on the idea that nobody should have to spend more time than that on the job, and those who wanted to wouldn't be allowed, just in case there wasn't enough work to go around. Sarkozy has pushed to give the French more freedom to earn overtime, to retire later if they please, to work as many years, days and hours as they want to--including Sundays.

But as logical as that may sound, in France it's widely viewed by the political elite as unseemly. The law that says never on Sunday has been in effect since 1906, and of course, this being France, there are hundreds of exceptions. Hotels, florists and hospitals, for instance, have permanent exemptions. Other establishments may get temporary or "exceptional" authorizations to stay open--but many for only five Sundays a year. Occasionally there are new exemptions to accommodate lifestyle changes; garden centers and video stores were added in 2005. So, in fact, millions of people are already working on Sundays in France. But the red tape is suffocating. Opening a shop on Sundays without asking a mayor or a prefect for an exemption is inviting a fine.

Many small merchants can't take that risk. "If folks want to work on Sundays, or run errands on Sundays, why stop them?" Sarkozy demanded in his 2007 campaign. And the bill on the table was, to say the least, generous: double pay for many who want to work on Sunday, another day off and the legal guarantee that workers could refuse the extra day. But the proposal touched a very raw, very French nerve. On the left and the right, critics waxed lyrical about the sanctity of Sundays. "Is contemporary man no more than a 'consumer individual,' or is he still the social animal Aristotle defined?" 50 parliamentarians from Sarkozy's own UMP party asked in an op-ed.

Many of the arguments against Sunday shopping hinge on the notion that poor people will feel forced to work in the stores. One line of attack suggests the poor will be deprived of amateur football matches played on Sunday, threatening the country's social fabric. The same sort of argument was used in November to oppose raising the maximum retirement age from 65 to 70. …