New law widens scope of Sunday trading

A new law increases the possibilities of obtaining dispensation from Sunday being a rest day in retail outlets in tourist zones and areas of ‘exceptional consumption’. In some cases, exemptions are automatic and the law does not provide for any special compensation for the employees affected. In other cases, administrative authorisation is given under certain conditions. The government is hoping to boost consumption; however, trade unions are among those opposed to the bill.

Tradition of Sunday as a rest day

In France, the principle of Sunday being a rest day is guaranteed by a law going back to 1906. However, there are many exemptions for sectors of economic activity that have to function seven days a week, such as transport, healthcare and some parts of the retail trade, notably small food shops; the latter are allowed to stay open until Sunday midday.

Until now, exemptions for shops and services in tourist zones to operate normally on Sundays and bank holidays required authorisation from the prefect (Préfet). Currently, 30% of the economically active population work on Sundays either usually or occasionally.

Greater possibilities of exemption

A new law, which was adopted by the French parliament (Assemblée Nationale) on 23 July 2009 and validated by the Constitutional Council (Conseil Constitutionnel) on 10 August, was published in the Statute book (Journal officiel) on 11 August; a decree followed on 21 September. The new legislation increases the possibilities for exemptions from Sunday being a rest day in two types of areas.

The first area is tourist zones and towns. The new law abolishes the requirement for prior administrative authorisation at any time of the year, including outside the tourist season. This applies to all retail shops – not only, as previously, those related to ‘relaxation and leisure activities’. Special rules still apply to retail food shops. The list of tourist areas and towns is drawn up by prefects, on advice from mayors. The law does not provide for any special compensation for employees and does not reserve Sunday working only for volunteers.

The second category refers to areas where there are ‘exceptional levels of consumption’ in conurbations of more than a million people – that is, the capital city of Paris, the east-central city of Lyons, the southeastern conurbation of Aix-Marseille and the northern city of Lille. Retail establishments in these areas can individually or collectively ask the prefect for administrative exemption from Sunday being a rest day. Authorisation is given for a period of five years. The list of areas concerned is drawn up by prefects at the request of town councils. According to the government, only about 20 big shopping areas involving about 15,000 employees would be concerned. Exemptions will only be made if a collective agreement is in place setting out financial compensation for employees. If there is no agreement, employers can make a unilateral decision on condition that the works council (comité d’entrepise) or employee representatives (délégués du personnel) are consulted in advance, and a referendum of the staff involved is organised. Compensation must be at least equal to double normal pay and must award time-off in lieu. Employees shall volunteer and give written agreement to work on Sundays. Anyone who refuses cannot be dismissed or refused a job for this reason. Employees who volunteer to work on Sundays can refuse to work on three Sundays of their choice a year.

Other changes

The law also introduces changes for other types of shops. Retail shops that are authorised by their mayor to open on Sundays can do so on five Sundays a year, with compensation that is at least equal to double normal pay and compulsory time-off in lieu. In addition, retail food shops can now stay open on Sundays until 13.00 instead of midday.

Boosting consumption

The 10 August 2009 law was adopted on the basis of a bill proposed by a member of parliament belonging to the majority party, namely the People’s Movement Party (Union pour un mouvement populaire, UMP). This procedure circumvented the government’s obligation to carry out prior consultations with the social partners. The law was, however, preceded by consultations with the government and injunctions from the President of the Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, who considers it to be a way of boosting consumption and increasing employment.

Opposition to the bill

The bill was contested by the left-wing political opposition parties and also, initially, by some UMP members of parliament, as well as church leaders. The trade unions, and especially the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), were strongly opposed to this law in the interests of keeping Sundays for activities outside work, including family, cultural, sporting and religious activities.

According to an opinion poll, the majority of French people are against increasing Sunday working. Employees who already work on Sundays are more likely to do so because they have to than because they want to. Due to the unequal treatment of employees resulting from this law, the left-wing parties appealed to the Constitutional Council but were not successful. The General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO) has referred the matter to the International Labour Organization (ILO) because, in the opinion of the trade union, the new law does not respect ILO Convention No. 106 on weekly rest.

Udo Rehfeldt, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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