Sarkozy's Plan to Allow Work on Sundays

If Nicolas Sarkozy were God (and many of his critics suggest he'd like to be), you can be sure he wouldn't rest on the seventh day of Creation. France's so-called omnipresident didn't shy away last month from a whirlwind trip to the Holy Land to broker a pause, if not an end, to the fighting in Gaza. He even presumed to co-chair with Tony Blair a summit of dignitaries assembled to rethink the future of capitalism. But there was a key challenge Sarkozy couldn't handle: the fight over shopping on Sundays. In France, it's basically against the law to work on the seventh day, and Sarkozy had committed himself to changing that.

But a third grueling attempt was stymied in January, and the Sabbath disappeared from the parliamentary agenda. Again. Next try: March. Maybe.

This is no trivial setback. The idea of keeping shops open on Sundays is, symbolically, at the core of Sarkozy's economic ideology: ennobling the idea of work while giving people more choices about how to make and spend their money. His approach is the antithesis of the ill-conceived 35-hour workweek of the 1990s, which was predicated on the idea that nobody should have to spend more time than that on the job, and those who wanted to wouldn't be allowed, just in case there wasn't enough work to go around. Sarkozy has pushed to give the French more freedom to earn overtime, to retire later if they please, to work as many years, days and hours as they want to—including Sundays.

But as logical as that may sound, in France it's widely viewed by the political elite as unseemly. The law that says never on Sunday has been in effect since 1906, and of course, this being France, there are hundreds of exceptions. Hotels, florists and hospitals, for instance, have permanent exemptions. Other establishments may get temporary or "exceptional" authorizations to stay open—but many for only five Sundays a year. Occasionally there are new exemptions to accommodate lifestyle changes; garden centers and video stores were added in 2005. So, in fact, millions of people are already working on Sundays in France. But the red tape is suffocating. Opening a shop on Sundays without asking a mayor or a prefect for an exemption is inviting a fine.

Many small merchants can't take that risk. "If folks want to work on Sundays, or run errands on Sundays, why stop them?" Sarkozy demanded in his 2007 campaign. And the bill on the table was, to say the least, generous: double pay for many who want to work on Sunday, another day off and the legal guarantee that workers could refuse the extra day. But the proposal touched a very raw, very French nerve. On the left and the right, critics waxed lyrical about the sanctity of Sundays. "Is contemporary man no more than a 'consumer individual,' or is he still the social animal Aristotle defined?" 50 parliamentarians from Sarkozy's own UMP party asked in an op-ed.

Many of the arguments against Sunday shopping hinge on the notion that poor people will feel forced to work in the stores. One line of attack suggests the poor will be deprived of amateur football matches played on Sunday, threatening the country's social fabric. The same sort of argument was used in November to oppose raising the maximum retirement age from 65 to 70. In fact, that law, which eventually passed, did not propose extending the number of working years required for a full pension, but the age at which bosses could force an employee to retire simply for being too old. But much of the debate was cast as if it were all about evil employers exploiting doddering workers.

The leader of even the most reform-minded union, François Chérèque of the CFDT, complained to Le Monde, "Employees will get to 65 with a small pension. They'll be told: either you stay poor, or you work longer. Where is the choice?" Better, it would seem, that they spend their twilight years on a bread line—topping up short pension checks—than hold a job. In fact, 39 percent of the French tell pollsters they would be willing to work regularly on Sundays. Not surprisingly, students (50.6 percent), the unemployed (55.1) and first-time job seekers (60.8) are eager for the chance, even if many French politicians and labor leaders think they're delusional.

For Sarkozy, all this is a stark reminder that after the grand diversions his six-month presidency of the European Union provided, the challenges at home are less glamorous, if no less grueling. The massive demonstrations at the end of January were a laundry list of them, including Sunday shopping. France's social model, with its high public spending and hefty subsidies, might have kept it out of technical recession longer than other major Western economies, but tends to make it slower to spring back on the other side. After Sarkozy won the highest office in France on a reform platform in comparatively sunny economic times in 2007, his political future depends on shepherding the country through brutal economic storms—without abandoning reform, as his predecessors did.

What the setback on Sunday shopping shows is that as unemployment lines grow, revolutionary (for France) rhetoric about "economic flexibility" isn't going to get easier to defend. Meanwhile, the Socialist opposition, catatonic through most of Sarkozy's presidency, now has a new leader in former employment minister Martine Aubry—the architect of the 35-hour workweek. And Sunday shopping offered a convenient means of resuscitation. The Socialists submitted 7,400 amendments to try to filibuster the Sunday-shopping reform bill. The defiance of some members of Sarkozy's own party surprised even their house majority leader, who regretted that big societal issues remain contentious for his right-wing bloc when they touch on family values or religion.

Nerves are raw among Sarkozy's parliamentarians generally, who have wearied of rubber-stamping his countless "emergency" reforms. So Sarkozy appeased them on the Sunday-work issue, stripping out most of the substance in the bill to avoid a complete defeat, even before it was yanked from the agenda again. Left, right and center, the French elites seem to conceive of themselves as guardians of some social utopia for those poor sods who actually have to work for a living, those masses who should enjoy long Sunday lunches with family and twilight years spent by the seaside. But the fact is their policies stifle and frustrate those they're meant to protect. It's not just changing economic policies, it's changing the attitudes behind them that may take Sarkozy a month of Sundays.