By  on July 9, 2009

PARIS — The French might soon be enjoying what Michelle Obama did on her trip to Paris last month: shopping for clothes on a Sunday.

Lawmakers here this week are debating a proposed bill that, if approved, would lift restrictions on Sunday trading that date back to 1906, overcoming the resistance of opposition parties and trade unions.

“Is it normal that on a Sunday, when Madame Obama wants to go to the Paris shops with her daughters, I have to make phone calls to have them open?” President Nicolas Sarkozy recently complained.

Unlike the U.S. and U.K., where Sunday trading is the norm, French shops are required by law to stay closed, unless they sell food, or are located in tourist areas and are deemed to have “recreational” or “cultural” value, such as bookstores.

When compared with other European Union countries, France has the most restrictive rules when it comes to Sunday trading. In neighboring Italy, for example, shops in tourist areas can elect to stay open on Sundays and holidays 10 months a year. In Madrid, the Spanish capital, stores are open every Sunday from midday until 8 p.m., while in Berlin they are allowed to open 10 Sundays every year.

In a bid to stimulate trade, the French government is proposing to loosen its tight rules and allow stores to open on Sunday by widening the tourist designation to more municipalities and allowing all types of retailers in these areas to open for business.

If the bill is passed in its current form, the number of municipalities designated as tourist areas could increase from the current 500 to 5,000.

As a result, areas like the Grand Boulevards neighborhood in Paris, where department stores Galeries Lafayette and Printemps are located, would be allowed to trade and improve the limited shopping options available in the capital to tourists on Sunday. Sunday shopping in Paris is currently allowed in the Champs-Elysées area, in the shopping mall under the Louvre museum, in parts of the Marais and Boulevard Saint-Germain areas. The Boulevard Haussmann is one of Paris’ most important tourist areas, with more than 120 million visitors every year and it’s the city’s main hotel area, with around 179 hotels.

Printemps, which is in the middle of a major renovation, has already signaled that it would welcome a decision to allow the area to trade on Sundays. Its chief executive, Paolo de Cesare, recently said this would be a “good decision,” because Printemps could create between 150 and 200 new jobs, while up to 1,000 new jobs could be created in the neighborhood.

“The main European and world capitals let their department stores open on Sunday,” said a Printemps spokeswoman, noting that competitors like Harrods, Selfridges, La Rinascente, Saks and Isetan have the opportunity to attract the tourist trade seven days a week. “It’s not just good for Parisian department stores, but for hotels, restaurants, museums, exhibitions,” she said.

Lawmakers estimated between 20,000 and 30,000 new jobs could be created if their proposals go ahead. A more realistic forecast, which takes into account the current economic downturn and the likely amendments to the final bill, would be between 5,000 and 10,000 jobs.

According to Laurence Parisot, president of France’s employers’ confederation, the introduction of Sunday trading wouldn’t be a solution to the current economic downturn, but would still be “a little contribution to getting out of the crisis.”

Despite the much-needed benefit to the economy through new jobs and improved consumption, the French remain ambivalent toward the proposals. About 63 percent of people polled in Paris, Marseille and Lille have backed Sunday trading, but 58 percent wouldn’t want to work on Sunday, according to a survey published last month.

The reason for this ambivalence is that while most French would be freed from having to concentrate their shopping expeditions on Saturdays, many employees in the retail sector would lose the extra pay and time off they receive for working Sundays and holidays under the current system.

There are also concerns about the fate of smaller municipalities that are less affected by tourism.

“It might make sense for the Virgin Megastore or the Louis Vuitton flagship on the Champs-Elysées to open on Sundays, but in areas where tourism is not as strong, Sundays might be preserved so that buying does not become the only leisure available,” said brand consultant Florian Gonzalez.

Trade unions have already stepped into the fray to show their opposition to the bill. The General Confederation of Labor, France’s second-largest trade union by membership numbers, has already collected more than 110,000 signatures against the law, with many members expressing concerns that working on Sundays won’t be optional anymore.

Another trade union, the French Confederation of Christian Labourers, has voiced its opposition saying Paris isn’t a shopping mall. “If Paris has an international reputation, that’s because of its heritage, its lifestyle and its culture,” the trade union stated. “These are elements that will be lessened by the hyper-commercialization of the capital.”

According to the Labor ministry, there are no plans to allow Sunday trading across Paris, but only in selected areas. In addition to the Grand Boulevards, La Défense, the high-rise office district in western Paris, is another candidate for Sunday trading in the capital.

“We must be reasonable.…Is it absolutely necessary that the shops are open at times and on days when people cannot do their shopping?” said Sarkozy, pointing out that Paris attracts 80 million tourists a year.

If Sarkozy manages to get his way, Obama’s next shopping expedition in Paris won’t be an exceptional event anymore.

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