As every English schoolchild knows, Napoleon described his old enemy as a nation of shopkeepers. It was not meant as a compliment. The state Napoleon created is still suspicious of shopkeepers, even if they are French, especially if they dare to open their doors on a Sunday.

For a resolutely secular state, the potent residue of regulation of what can and cannot be allowed on the Sabbath in France might seem odd, but in fact the rules have little to do with religious observance and more to do with union-inspired restrictions allied to a stunningly complex set of overlapping jurisdictions – what one government minister has described as a millefeuille (a thousand leaves) of regulation. It is this complexity that has catapulted a dispute about which do-it-yourself stores in the Paris suburbs can open on Sunday into a national issue, with emergency cabinet meetings held to find a way through.

The rules are giddyingly complex. Some types of store can open quite freely on a Sunday; others for a few hours, still others cannot open at all. But even those, such as DIY stores, which are restricted, may do so if they are located in a périmètre d’usage de consommation exceptionnel (Puce). It may help anglophones if I clarify that professor Google translates that as meaning “the perimeter of the use of special use”. It may not. The idea is that there may be areas where exceptions can be justified, particularly if there is cross-border competition. The relevant municipal government needs to claim the exemption, which can then be approved by the regional prefect.

Even if your store is not in a Puce, however, do not abandon hope. Local mayors may grant exceptional permission to open, on the so-called “five Sundays of the mayor”. These five Sundays must be carefully distinguished from the three Sundays on which employers must allow their employees to decline to work, if they take advantage of this generous permission. It is perhaps not surprising that in these circumstances, a number of shops have decided to take the law into their own hands and to reach agreements with their workforce on a variety of compromises. Where the law is an ass we can expect no less.

This outbreak of flexibility and voluntarism has annoyed the unions, and in some cases provoked competing shops. Both have brought and won cases to compel shops to close, even where employees are demanding the right to sell turpentine to their fellow citizens on the way home from mass.

The government now finds itself the piggy in the middle of this bitter dispute. Unions still exert significant influence on the Socialist leadership in spite of the low level of unionisation in the private sector. Yet a government rhetorically committed to enhancing competitiveness and flexibility on the one hand and employment on the other is uncomfortable with the thought of shops laying off checkout staff who are campaigning for the right to work and of supporting obscure rules which seem to reduce consumption.

Which way will President François Hollande jump? In the week when the British Conservative party held a Thatcher day at its annual conference, he may wish to reflect for a moment on the Iron Lady’s experience. Her own attempt to liberalise Sunday trading failed ignominiously in 1986 after a rebellion by backbench members of her own party. It was one of the worse defeats of her premiership. (Not until 1994, under John Major, did garden gnomes become freely available on the Lord’s day.) A similarly bold approach by Mr Hollande might also fail in the National Assembly.

The government has done what governments tend to do when in a box – it has commissioned a review. It will find that the proportion of people working on Sunday has grown from a quarter to a third over the past decade. But it will also find that there is no clear correlation in Europe between liberalised shopping hours and economic growth: the Germans and Austrians are the most restrictive countries. The problem for the French is that obscure shopping regulations play into the perception that France remains an over-regulated nation, hostile to business innovation. So it just may be that the DIY shopworkers get their way.

But I forecast a French solution, with more exceptions and exemptions added to the millefeuille, rather than wholesale liberalisation.

The writer is a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, chairman of the Phoenix Group, chairman of the UK Airports Commission and a former executive chairman of the FSA


Letter in response to this article

Yes – shopping regulations are a pest / From Mr Fred Simons

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