PARIS — Will French retailers finally get the green light to open every Sunday?
The answer to the question may come fast, as the French government this week is scheduled to debate a law proposing far-reaching changes to the country's rigorous statutes regulating retailers.
Among the bill's most contentious propositions is the right to open on Sundays and whether retailers should be allowed to discount goods at their discretion.
At present, French law allows stores to open five Sundays a year — mostly during the busy holiday shopping season — and dictates the dates during which goods can be put on sale.
Most retailers have adopted a wait-and-see stance to the proposed changes in the law, especially vis-à-vis their unionized workers. Spokeswomen at Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché, two of the main department stores here, said it was too early to comment on how the measures could affect business.
Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz was more immediately open to change. "Since we are a commercially driven company we would of course welcome such an initiative — i.e., more opening hours," said a spokeswoman for the Swedish fast-fashion firm.
Already some stores have circumvented the current law. Louis Vuitton, for instance, recently won the right to keep its Champs-Elysées flagship open after a showdown with labor unions. The store argued that because it operates an onsite museum it should be able to open as a cultural institution on Sunday. (Museums are allowed to operate on Sundays in France.)
French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been trying to stimulate the French economy through financial deregulation and measures aimed to spark consumer spending. The French economy is expected to grow only 2 percent this year, below the 2.2 percent European average. But Sarkozy's early reforms have met with opposition. Rail workers went on strike over a bill that would trim their special retirement privileges.
And unions are protesting his proposed changes to shopping legislation.
Charles Melcer, the president of the French National Clothing Federation, which represents 54,800 independent clothing retailers in France, said the law would need to be carefully calibrated to be effective.
"I am not against adding a few Sunday openings a year," said Melcer. "But there is a difference between opening in tourist zones and opening everywhere on Sunday."
Already certain zones deemed heavy tourist draws have looser shopping regulations on Sunday and are allowed to trade.
"But opening on Sunday isn't a panacea for the economy," continued Melcer. "It doesn't necessarily generate spending power. If you're open on Sunday, at the end of the day, it doesn't mean you'll do more business if the spending power doesn't increase."
Melcer is lobbying the government to identify tourist zones. "We need to have a study done," he said, before adding he was also against changes to rules governing sales, saying strict sales dates generate a snowball effect among consumers.
"For everyone to discount at their whim isn't an effective tool," he said. "It's much better — it generates press and business — when everyone has to do it together."
The next batch of sales in France begin on Jan. 9 and run for roughly a month.
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