Au revoir to the lazy Sunday

President Sarkozy's crusade for Sunday shopping has sparked a gloriously French debate
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France is a country of rigid rules, apart from all the exceptions. Looked at another way, it is a country where the exception is the rule. Since that is the rule there are, of course, many exceptions. Pity, then, President Nicolas Sarkozy as he tilts, Don Quixote-like, against the French ban on Sunday trading which has existed since 1906.

Ban? What ban? If you enter any small French town or large village on a Sunday morning, there will be at least one bakery and at least one butcher's shop open (something unthinkable in small-town Britain). French cities and large towns have dozens of such shops to choose from. The variations are endless.

Today, the French national assembly, the lower house of parliament, will almost certainly approve a new draft law which seeks to give clarity and common sense to this jumble.

But in order to gain the support of rebellious members of his own party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), M. Sarkozy's new law has been peppered with exceptions of its own. It would be foolish to expect anything else. This is, after all, France. No one can be expected to eat day-old bread; or paté; or lamb chops. Food shops and markets already have a complete exception from the Sunday-trading ban, except for large supermarkets, except in some areas where (as an exception to the exception), they are allowed to open (but not usually in the winter, spring and autumn.)

If you go to the inner suburbs of Paris or Lille or Marseilles on a Sunday (but not to Lyon) you will find many large stores and malls open which are covered by local exceptions, which may or may not be entirely legal. These exceptions apply mostly to "leisure activities", which include, for some reason, buying furniture. There are also exceptions for "tourist areas" which means that some parts of Paris – the Marais area for instance – are a hive of commercial activity on a Sunday and others are not.

President Sarkozy likes to complain that the Sunday-shopping ban applies to the southern side of the Avenue des Champs Elysées but not to the northern side. This is, unfortunately, a myth. The ban applies to both sides of the most beautiful avenue in the world (except those shops with exceptions, which happen mostly to be on the northern side.)

M. Sarkozy is determined to push through the law, a tattered relic of his original campaign promise to "legalise Sunday working for everyone willing to work". But the proposed changes being voted on today are being attacked as a heartless assault on the very essence of the French way of life by a curious coalition of those who usually agree about nothing: Catholics and Protestants; right-wing traditionalists and most politicians on the left.

A first, ambitious version of the law was wrecked by M. Sarkozy's own parliamentary troops last year. The new version declares Sunday to be sacrosanct and then lists the exceptions and the exceptions to the exceptions. If passed, it will open the way for shopping malls and big stores to open every Sunday in large conurbations, such as the suburbs of Paris, Lille and Marseilles. The greater Lyon area, where M. Sarkozy's supporters dug in their heels, has been declared an exception because it is not an, "area traditionally characterised by end of week shopping".

The law would also allow all shops to open on Sundays in "areas much frequented by tourists", unless those tourist areas happen to be in Alsace and Lorraine, which are exempted.

There is one other huge anomaly in the draft law. Workers in large shops in the Paris, Lille and Marseilles areas can refuse to work on Sundays. If they do work, they will be able to claim double wages, plus a day off. Workers in smaller shops in tourist areas can be ordered to work on Sundays, on normal pay. If passed today, the law still has to go to the upper house, Le Senat, which is likely to introduce even more exceptions. The much amended draft has become so untidily self-contradictory that it may, in any case, be shot down by France's version of the US Supreme Court, the Conseil Constitutionnel.

Why, then, such stridency and talk of an end to the French way of life? The Catholic Church complains that the law will destroy the sanctity of Sunday (even though only one in 10 French Catholics attends Mass). The left complains that the law will push France down the slippery slope to US-type, shopaholic dereliction of family values (although France is already one of the EU countries which works most on Sundays).

Hyperbole exists on both side of the argument. President Sarkozy claims that more Sunday shopping will help to end the recession. Even the main employers' federation says that it could only help a tiny bit.

And M. Sarkozy says that France has become a laughing stock among European nations. But there are several other EU countries – Germany, Austria, even Belgium – where Sunday closing laws are stricter than in France. Only the Czechs, Swedes and Romanians have no limits on Sunday opening.

No matter. Both sides prefer to argue about myths rather than face up to the messy realities.

This is mostly President Sarkozy's fault. Rather than say that he is making a marginal change in a legal muddle (as some of his ministers admit) he has declared the battle over Sunday to be the battering ram which will create a New France.

"For me, it is emblematic," he told doubtful members of his own party in December. "If we drop this, I will be like all the other presidents who have given up reforms after their first two years. If we give way on Sunday working, it will be symbolic."

M. Sarkozy's closest supporters argue that the psychological effect of the law could be greater than its practical impact. It should be seen, they say, as part of the President's drive to mess with the French mind: to make the French more entrepreneurial and less consumed by tradition. To this extent, President Sarkozy may be right. The Sunday trading law is emblematic of his two years in power. An incremental reform is proclaimed to be radical in the hope that it will somehow alter the way that the French think about themselves.