by David Sugarman
I first came across this when I was a student. I spent a year as a language assistant in a lycée in Paris, living in a little room in a sort of dormitory corridor. For lunch most days, I would make do with some bread and cheese and a yoghurt in my room. There were a couple of small corner shops within a hundred metres of my school, both part of chains long since defunct. A couple of days a week I gave classes from 11 o’clock to 12 noon. Except that my classes finished three minutes early, giving me just enough time to sprint up the road and burst through the door of one of the corner shops as the shopkeeper was trying to lock up and hurriedly acquire my bits and bobs of lunch.
The idea of a food shop closing for lunch – a 2-hour break no doubt – struck me as the height of absurdity. I was later to discover that this is an ingrained habit in the French retail universe. Not just small shops, but often medium-size stores and supermarkets, too. When you want to get a bit of shopping done during your own lunch break, it’s easy not to be best pleased. I have fallen foul of the practice more times than I care to remember.
My mother owned a small dress shop for many years in England. As far as I recall, the assistants worked half-day shifts, but my mother took an egg sandwich in tinfoil to the shop every day and she would munch at it in a quiet moment. She wouldn’t have dreamt of closing the shop at mid-day. But I can only assume that French shopkeepers and shop assistants must be made of more fragile stuff, because without their two-hour lunch break they would surely fade away!
The issue of shop opening hours has been very much in the news lately, not with regard to lunchtimes (truth to tell, things are progressing slowly: one of my local supermarkets has just put up a big placard with new opening hours “sans interruption”) but Sunday trading and evening opening. French regulations governing “l’ouverture dominicale” are a mass of contradictions, paradoxes and exceptions. Huge furniture stores like Ikea can open but enormous DIY emporiums can’t. Several categories of stores in tourist areas such as the Champs Élysées are authorised to open, but the same categories in other tourist areas barely a kilometre away, such as the Grands Boulevards, aren’t.
Late-night opening is also a thorny issue, with the trade unions claiming that the premium paid on employees’ wages is desultory. Cases are going through the courts, injunctions are flying around, and the government is talking about new legislation. But don’t hold your breath: the French haven’t quite grasped the idea that if consumers want to shop on a Sunday, in the evening or, heaven help us, at lunchtime, it makes good commercial sense to let them. In many cultures the customer is king, but we all know what the French tend to think of kings!