Branson digs in at the battle of the sabbath: Virgin's fight for French Sundays intensifies

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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE, white lettering on a black banner proclaimed that the Virgin Megastore would fight to open on Sundays 'until the end'.

Inside 56 Avenue des Champs-Elysees, T-shirts marked 'I vote for the opening of Virgin Megastore on Sundays' went for Fr44 ( pounds 5), as Richard Branson opened for business yesterday.

So began the latest stage of his battle for the right to keep his records, video and book shop in one of the world's prime sites open on the legal rest day. He lost that right last month when a one-year special permit - delivered because the store was selling cultural goods in a tourist area - expired.

Last week, responding to complaints by the CGT and the CFDT trade unions, a Paris court ordered Virgin to pay a massive Fr4m penalty every time it opened on a Sunday. The penalty was reduced to Fr1m on appeal on Friday.

The unions, between which the penalty will be divided, now have to press their complaint to collect the money. The unions and other detractors say Sunday trading deprives workers of their rest day and, less convincingly in a lay republic, that it disturbs the peace of a day set aside for prayer.

Virgin is not alone in its fight for the right to trade on Sundays. Another foreign firm is Ikea which, in defiance of court orders, has kept one Paris area store and one in Marseilles open. In Beauvais last week, a court ordered six shops, from supermarkets to DIY stores, to pay Fr10,000 for each hour they opened on Sundays.

But it is Virgin, with its Champs- Elysees address, that has captured the imagination and the publicity. When the Megastore opened at noon, 'there were more cameras and television crews than shoppers', one visitor said.

Later, the store was doing brisk business. Virgin says 8 million shoppers visit each year, 1.5 million of them on Sundays.

Patrick Zelnick, the head of Virgin- France, said the purpose of opening yesterday was 'to denounce the stupidity of this situation and to appeal to common sense and the government so that it deals with this matter'.

Last week, Mr Branson said he might consider closing for a few Sundays while the matter was worked out. If so, given the lip service paid to the faithful, next Sunday, the Catholic feast of the Assumption, might be the occasion for such a gesture.