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French eye work on Sundays

FRANCE'S lower house of parliament yesterday took up the most prickly part of a bill that could allow more stores to open on Sundays, a debate that has provoked deep passions about France's attitude toward the day of rest.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has pushed for more flexible Sunday labor laws, saying it would boost the economy and make the country more tourist-friendly, but he has met with opposition on the left and within his own conservative UMP party -- as well as among some Catholics.

Lawmakers began debating the bill in the lower house, the National Assembly, on Tuesday. They were expected to vote on the article that contains the most contested issue, requiring employers to pay overtime and offer compensation time to those who work on Sundays in certain newly designated zones but not in others.

While only a minority in France regularly go to church on Sunday, the day is still seen by many as an important break, a day for visiting family or having home-cooked meals.

Further, Socialists say the bill would erode a key labor protection passed in 1906 after a deadly mining accident that helped mobilize support for greater worker rights. The new bill represents "a social regression, and that will destroy a protection, a levee built in 1906," said Socialist lawmaker Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The conservative Labor Minister, Xavier Darcos, accused the left-wing of "having a problem with work." The left "wants absolutely to prevent people in tourist areas from doing a bit of shopping on Sunday," he said on France-Inter radio.

The bill is likely to pass, because the ruling UMP dominates parliament. But passage will not mean businesses across France can open their doors on Sundays.

It would allow city councils to request permission from the regional administration to allow stores to open on Sundays in tourist zones and the cities of Paris, Marseille and Lille. In those three cities, the regional administration, called the prefecture, could then define new "perimeters of exceptional consumption." Stores in these zones could then ask the prefecture for the right to open on Sundays.

Even the number of towns that could be designated tourist zones is a subject of debate. Socialists say the measure could be extended to 6,000 towns, while the UMP says it would only affect about 500.


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