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French shops could soon open on Sundays for the first time if Sarkozy gets his way

A controversial and complicated debate is raging across France this week after the French parliament’s lower house voted on Wednesday by a narrow majority – 282 to 238 – to loosen restrictions on Sunday trading.

If ratified, the bill would allow shops to open on Sunday in 500 tourist areas and cities with more than a million inhabitants. Previously Sunday was designated a day of “repos”. All commercial activity in France was banned, although there were certain exceptions including markets and grocers.

But the bill is yet to be ratified. It still has to get through the Senate and even if the upper house approves it, it could still be blocked. The Socialist Party, which voted against the law has threatened to go to the Conseil Constitutionnel, arguing that the law would be unconstitutional. They maintain it would create inequality among workers, forcing some to work on Sunday, allowing others to keep this traditional day of rest.

In Britain, we’ve long taken for granted that shops should be open at our convenience but the issue of whether to keep dimanche sacré is dividing France. A poll for Libération revealed that 55 per cent of French people were opposed to allowing more Sunday trading.

The divide is not totally along left-right lines – even within Sarkozy’s UMP, despite pressure from the top, 10 mps voted against the law and 15 abstained. Rather the debate centres on the question of whether to move towards a more free market Anglo-Saxon model.

The law’s critics claim allowing more large discount stores and supermarkets to trade on Sundays would lead to smaller traditional shops going out of business. Its supporters say the changes would boost public spending and the economy.

So, as Guillaume Perrault declares in Le Figaro, despite the bill passing through the lower house:

« La bataille du travail le dimanche n’est pas encore achevée »

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