Byline: Sarah Raper, with contributions from Alev Aktar and Natasha Fraser

PARIS — The Christmas shopping season improved over the weekend as many striking rail and transport workers voted to return to work, however the situation is far from resolved.
Many cities in France are still deprived of train service. Meanwhile, a massive demonstration of hundreds of thousands of workers on Saturday scared away shoppers from downtown areas, and merchants feel threatened by new calls for more demonstrations on Tuesday.
After three full weeks without any local transportation, 11 of Paris’s 13 metro lines were running over the weekend, but service was sporadic and unpredictable. As many as 50 percent of the intercity train lines ran over the weekend, but a handful of major cities in France had no service. Government officials expect the transport and train services to improve gradually throughout the week, and the mail service, which has been severely slowed, to resume.
Chapters of unions began voting Friday to return to work following government concessions on the austerity program that is at the root of the strike.
Merchants were relieved to see some improvement, especially since the thaw comes while there’s still a full shopping week left before Christmas.
On Friday, the Galeries Lafayette flagship in Paris, which has seen sales plunge 50 percent since the strike began, rushed to take advantage of the remaining shopping time with a radio campaign that kicked off Saturday. The spot urges the public not to waste time going from store to store — “You’ll find everything at the Galeries Lafayette.”
In addition, the store slashed prices. The 30-percent-off promotion on men’s, women’s and children’s fashion that was previously limited to Galeries Lafayette cardholders was extended to non-cardholders as of Saturday. And the late holiday closing hours — 8:00 p.m. during the week and 9:00 p.m. on Thursday — that were canceled during the strike are back in effect.
Jean-Michel Hallez, director of the flagship Galeries Lafayette store, said Sunday, “Sales were down 20 percent on Saturday compared to last year, and today they were even.” He attributed Sunday’s results to “a combination of clients being able to drive their cars into town without traffic and better transport service — and more importantly, an improvement in shopper’s confidence that they could come into Paris and get home again.”
On the other hand, he noted the suburban stores, which haven’t been as affected by the strike, continued to show good results over the weekend.
Even in the best case scenario, store officials said it would be impossible to make up all the losses at the flagship.
Down the street, at the Printemps department store flagship, Daniel Lesaunier, a store director, said that sales were down 25 percent on Saturday compared to a year ago, but like Galeries Lafayette, Sunday’s sales were on par with last year. And, he pointed out, Saturday sales were up 10 percent over the previous Saturday.
At the Chambre Syndicale, president Jacques Mouclier said he was sure the January couture shows would proceed as scheduled, although hours during the holiday period might have to be extended to make up for time lost during the strikes.
“Of course, there may be a few houses that will not be able to show as many outfits,” he said, noting that some ateliers, which he declined to identify, had suffered high rates of absenteeism. “Given the circumstances, though, we will be very lenient in enforcing the rules on minimum number of outfits.” Many small companies in France have been financially strapped during the strike, as payments have been stalled by the postal strike.
Mouclier said he had already written to Prime Minister Alain Juppe to ask him to allow the small- and medium-sized companies he represents to stretch out their social security contributions and tax payments over a year to ease their financial burden. JuppA has indicated he would make allowances for small companies.
Since the strike began on Nov. 24, business at luxury boutiques has been halved, said Mouclier, adding that 20 percent of their business comes over the holidays.
“The stores will not be able to make up all that they’ve lost in December in a couple of days,” he said. But he noted that these companies depend on exports for 80 percent of their business and said he believed that most would be able to absorb the French losses. For example, the Dior flagship on the Avenue Montaigne has seen business drop 15 to 20 percent since the start of the strike, but leather goods sales have tripled against last year, according to Bernard Danillon, a spokesman for the house.
“The ‘Sac Cannage’ is completely sold out,” he said, referring to a bag with a chair-canework motif that Dior has been showing in outdoor advertising. For the first time, the shops on the Avenue Montaigne were open on a Sunday over the weekend, an decision made before the start of the strike. On Sunday, exception for Dior, most of the stores were lightly trafficked. The Escada store on Avenue Montaigne, however, reported it was ahead of last year for November and December.
Because of the strike, the Hermes flagship on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore opened on Sunday and will remain open next Sunday, as well.
The unrest certainly put a damper on the social scene, as many society stalwarts hunkered down at their weekend houses.
“I’ve been spending four days in the country and avoiding Paris as much as possible,” said Maryll Lanvin, adding: “It’s important to be organized. All my mail is being delivered by chauffeur.”

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