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Some people don't want to work more to earn more

Paris has everything to entice tourists - from famous attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum, to street cafes and delicious food. No wonder the city attracts about 27 million visitors each year. But to the dismay of many tourists, Paris, like most European cities, is a shopping wasteland on Sundays, as many stores close.

In 2009, seeking a relaxation to the weekly shopping shutdown, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy said the French should "work more to earn more". To him, it was embarrassing when US First Lady Michelle Obama couldn't do some private Sunday shopping in Paris. "How are we supposed to explain to her that we are the only country where shops are closed on Sunday?" he said.

An argument on this subject is brewing, concerning a relaxation in labour rules. With the economic situation so poor, stores want to open on Sundays and some workers want to work more. That's not surprising given that France's unemployment rate hit 10.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2013 - the highest level the country has seen in 15 years. The figure rose even higher, to 11 per cent, in July.

However, due to tough labour rules, retailers in France cannot open their stores whenever they want. The strict rules regulating retailers' opening hours derive from a long tradition of "le repos dominical" - protecting Sunday as a "day of rest" for workers. In some cities that are popular with tourists, retailers are allowed to open on Sundays, but only on the strict condition that they do not force any of their employees to work on that day. In September, two retailers were given a court order that they must close 15 of their outlets in Paris on Sunday.

While this looks like a local issue, an article on CNBC.com indicates that it may not be so. Several Chinese migrants are doing well in Paris as the owners of cafes and restaurants there, and they are glad to "work more to earn more". One man cited in the article works 11 hours a day, six days a week.

France is part of the European Union, where free flows of labour are allowed. French workers may not yet be intimidated by workers from other European nations who are happy with harder work conditions. But as the borders open wider, workers of other nationalities might be encouraged to enter France. Some of them will be willing to work harder and probably for lower pay than French nationals; they will be welcomed by employers.

Despite the high unemployment rate, many in France feel that the move to relax the labour rules threatens their work-life balance. They fret that the laws limiting Sunday trading and enforcing a 35-hour week might be changed. A change could see employers turning to workers who are willing to work more than 35 hours a week.

The current labour rules have some benefits. One is the preservation of the traditional French way of life - with workers having sufficient time for their families and for leisure. A happy life means a happy nation. Another benefit is that all retailers, big or small, have to close on Sundays regardless of their hiring power. A supporter of the "no-change" attitude is President Francois Hollande. Despite reforms this year that loosened some rigidity in the labour rules, he has sidestepped the issue of the 35-hour working week.

Yet, with high unemployment and economic stagnation, it might be necessary to be more flexible in terms of working culture, in order to create jobs and compete on a global level. In a world governed by demand and supply rules, it seems natural for companies and their workers to work more when consumers want to consume more. Preventing people from working more means that France is running against the tide. Some French workers even demonstrated last month, demanding the right to work on Sunday.

There were reports that Italy and Spain, where unemployment rates are higher, are planning to relax their labour rules. Elsewhere, working hours are longer. In the United Kingdom, the maximum working week is 48 hours on average. Those choosing to work longer hours can do so. In the United States, the maximum number of working hours for a full-time employee is 40 hours a week. The 40-hour week is also applied in Thailand.

French lawmakers are fighting over whether they should relax the rules. When a study is completed and revealed next month, we will know if French workers will remain among the happiest in the world.


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