Paris spring in step for Sunday shoppers

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IT IS a victory for the right to shop until you drop. A French court has granted permission for fashion giant Louis Vuitton to keep its flagship store on the Champs Elysees open on Sundays.

Vuitton opened the shop on Paris' world-famous central boulevard last year to cash in on the thousands of eager-to-spend tourists who throng its pavements every weekend.

But it was temporarily ordered to close its doors to Sunday shoppers last month after a legal action taken out by two French unions, which want to preserve the sanctity of a day off for its members.

Now an administrative appeals court has agreed to allow the new store to reopen next Sunday in a long-running row which highlights arcane shopping-related laws not only in France but the rest of Europe.

Throughout most of France, the shops are closed on Sundays although the Champs Elysees is an exception.

French unions have battled for years over whether Sunday should remain a day of rest, worship and leisurely family lunches and the tug-of-war has left behind a patchwork of baffling regulations on who can sell what and where.

Supporters say Sunday shopping would help cut the 9.3% unemployment rate and point to a poll suggesting three-quarters of Parisians like the idea.

The debate resurfaced after Louis Vuitton opened its new Champs Elysees store - an airy, 21,500-square-foot temple to handbags and high fashion - last autumn with the intention of opening on Sundays. Vuitton says 70 of its 300 employees were hired for that purpose and willing to work and the shop had permission from the top local union official.

The company, which has just signed up British model Kate Moss to front its advertising campaigns, also argued that it met the complex criteria for opening on Sundays, which include being in a tourist area and having a cultural, recreational or sports dimension.

The company pointed to the store's bookstore and art gallery, which was open to all, not just shoppers. To underline its cultural credentials, it opened a small museum on the top floor.

It had not reckoned with the outrage of the National Clothing Federation, known by its French initials FNH, and the French Christian labour union, or CFTC, which filed a joint lawsuit asking the courts to close it down on the Lord's Day.

Charles Melcer, president of the FNH, argued that France's consumer spending would not increase by even one euro if stores were open on Sunday; only tourists would benefit.

But at the heart of his fears is that only big chains have enough staffing to stay open, which would force France's cherished neighbourhood shops out of business. "We in France don't want that," Melcer said.

Throughout Europe, laws differ vastly. In Sweden, most shops stay open on Sundays. Poland's stores are open, but the Roman Catholic church has been fighting to force shopping malls and supermarkets to close. The church is leading a similar battle in Croatia.

In Germany, during the World Cup, retailers are being allowed to open on Sunday, though the 1949 constitution mandates Sundays as a day of rest from work and "for the promotion of spiritual purposes". Retailers and politicians are watching the World Cup experiment to see if shopping should be allowed on Sundays at some point in the future.

In France, where most people no longer go to church, exceptions are the rule. Under the Champs Elysees' regulations, Quiksilver can sell T-shirts because it also sells surfboards and other sports gear, but Gap cannot.

Virgin Megastore, which waged its own battle years ago, can open because it has a cultural dimension. But Vuitton - which opened its first Paris store in 1914 - cannot.

The closed shops leave foreign tourists perplexed, said Dominique Rodet, an official with a committee that represents Champs Elysees shops. Around 80% of the 500,000 people strolling on the avenue every Sunday are foreigners, she says.

"For Paris' image, and on an economic level, it's very harmful," she adds.

Outside Paris, a mall called Usines Center has been waging a similar battle to Vuitton's. For 20 years, the mall with 140 shops and 600 employees has been open on Sundays - illegally. Usines Center points out that other malls around Paris did win clearance from authorities because they were classified as being near tourist areas such as Charles de Gaulle Airport and Disneyland Paris. Never mind that Usines Center is just a few miles from the Chateau of Versailles.

Officials "know the law is old and stupid and at the same time they don't want to change it, because of Catholic tradition and social issues," said Jean-Patrick Grumberg, president of Usines Center's association of shop owners.

Demand from the public is there: Grumberg says Usines Center gets at least 35% of its annual revenues of 92 million euros on Sundays.

On the mall's behalf, the Ipsos polling agency conducted a survey in April that found 75% of people in Paris and the suburbs favoured Sunday shop openings and only 24% were opposed.

The Usines too has faced the wrath of the unions. While a 2005 court decision allowed them to stay open, an appeals court in Versailles overturned that decision earlier this month, ordering them to close.

Since then, the mall's shops have stayed open on Sundays on a technicality as they await formal notification of the court decision.

If need be, Grumberg says they will take advantage of another loophole - shops can open on Sundays if the owners and their immediate families are the only ones who work. Which means, he says, that 80 other mall employees could lose their jobs.