French stores rebel against Sunday trading ban in bitter row

PARIS (AFP) - Braving a court ban, 14 home improvement stores in France opened to the public on Sunday in an increasingly bitter tug of war with the government over a law prohibiting trading on the traditional day of rest.

The move comes amid intense debate over France's labour practices. The government is seeking to continue a long tradition ruling out Sunday and late-night work, but at a time of record high unemployment, many employees regard the ban as antiquated and dangerous.

Last week, both Leroy Merlin and Castorama, two home improvement chains, were ordered by a court to stop opening their stores in the Paris area on Sundays or face a fine of 120,000 euros (S$204,000) per shop and per day.

But on Sunday, they opened anyway amid anger among employees and customers.

"I'm outraged by the court decision: All of a sudden, I risk ending up without a salary, which threatens my studies," said Ms Eleanor Leloup, a 24-year-old chiropractic student who works every weekend at one of the affected Leroy Merlin stores in Ivry-sur-Seine, next to Paris.

Spokespeople for both chains denounced a confusing law that allows some stores to open and others not.

Under the law, retailers can only open on a Sunday under very specific conditions - if they are located in a tourist area, for instance. Any shop selling food, such as a butcher, can also do trade until 1pm.

"Some stores can open on Sundays without a problem and others must ask for special dispensations. It would be good if everyone received equal treatment," a Castorama spokeswoman told AFP.

Leroy Merlin, meanwhile, blasted a "staggering imbroglio" when it came to permits given to some stores to open, and not to others.

And in an interview with Sunday's Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Mrs Sylvia Pinel, minister for commerce and the crafts industry, acknowledged that there was "a complexity in the law" that demanded clarification.

Other ministers, however, have rebuked the two DIY chains.

On Saturday, Mr Benoit Hamon, Consumer Affairs Minister, said it was "unacceptable that a brand does not implement a judicial decision".

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, meanwhile, said rules must be respected as "we are a state ruled by law".

By-and-large, customers who came to the DIY stores on Sunday said they supported the decision to remain open.

"I'm ashamed, I think it's outrageous that in this country, people are not being allowed to work. And then people are surprised that there is unemployment," said Parisian Elisabeth Armani at the Ivry Leroy Merlin store.

Employees at some of the stores had set up stalls to explain to customers why they had decided to defy the court ban, and ask them to sign petitions.

At the LeRoy Merlin store in Ivry, 23-year-old student Smahene wore a T-shirt blazoned with the words "Yes week-end", in a nudge to the "Yes we can" slogan used by US President Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign.

The Sunday controversy comes on top of another similar debate in France last week - this time over a law banning late-night work.

A court ruled on Monday that cosmetics retailer Sephora must close its flagship Paris store by 9pm after it had been keeping it open until midnight on weekdays and up to 1am on Fridays and Saturdays, to capitalise on demand for late-night shopping.

Employees of the store have since blasted the unions that brought the case for preventing them from opting to work longer hours for extra pay, at a time when unemployment stands at a record 10.9 per cent.

The retailer has said it will appeal the court order.