Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

PARIS — After years of resisting efforts to further liberalize store hours, France’s Socialist prime minister signaled Monday that Paris was prepared to discuss changes to labor laws that more than a century ago established Sunday as a mandatory day of rest for most workers.

At a time of weak economic growth and high unemployment, a growing number of French retailers have begun to openly chafe at restrictions that since 1906 have barred merchants, with some exceptions, from keeping their doors open on Sunday. But powerful labor unions — long a bastion of Socialist support — have traditionally opposed efforts to loosen the rules, portraying Sunday shopping as an encroachment on cherished traditions of égalité and fraternité.

In a tacit recognition that for a growing number of voters — especially the young — jobs and convenience have become an equally important part of the French quality-of-life calculus, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault conceded Monday that there were “weaknesses” and inconsistencies in the country’s labor laws. He asked a former chief of the French postal service to propose a list of changes by late November.

But Ayrault stopped well short of suggesting that significant reform was on the horizon.

“The existence of Sunday work is a reality,” Ayrault said in a statement, but it added: “Sunday rest is an essential principle in terms of protecting workers and social cohesion.”

With municipal and European parliamentary elections slated for next spring, the statement appeared calibrated to preserve ambiguity about the government’s intentions and head off labor unrest.

Ayrault’s statement followed a protest by two large home-improvement chains in the Paris region that remained open this Sunday in defiance of a court ruling.

A judge last week ordered the retailers, Leroy Merlin and Castorama, to close their 15 Paris-area stores on Sundays after a complaint by a competitor, Bricorama, which was barred last year from keeping Sunday hours.

Last week’s ruling followed another just days earlier that barred Sephora, a cosmetics chain owned by the luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, from keeping its flagship store on Paris’s glittering Champs-Elysées open after 9 p.m., putting more than 40 jobs at risk. The store had previously been open until midnight.

It is not the first time that the vexing question of Sunday hours has stirred heated debate here. Several of the legal inconsistencies to which Ayrault referred date back to the previous center-right government led by Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, pushed through changes in 2009 that allowed commercial centers and shopping malls in Paris, Lille and Marseille to remain open on Sundays, as well as stores in around 500 designated tourist districts. The Socialists, then led by François Hollande, now the country’s president, challenged that reform without success.

Marisol Touraine, the French health minister, acknowledged Sunday that the “status quo is obviously untenable” but sought to put blame on the Sarkozy government for “piling on rules and laws that, in the end, nobody understands anymore.”

Jean-François Copé, the leader of the UMP, defended the decision to relax store hours during Sarkozy’s time in office. However, wary of alienating the religious right, which supports Sunday shop closures, he made clear he opposed a wholesale lifting of restrictions. “Given the sclerotic economic situation of our country, such ideological polemics are a luxury we can no longer afford,” Copé said of the debate.