When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France in 2007, he promised to get the economy moving by lengthening the 35-hour workweek, cutting back on the number of paid holidays, tightening up on the generous amounts of paid vacation and cutting taxes.
He was thwarted in most of these initiatives by unions and by the fact that those French workers lucky enough to have jobs were happy with the status quo.
Sarkozy lost the election last year to Socialist Francois Hollande, who, under union pressure, scrapped most of Sarkozy’s planned reforms. In fact, he more or less threw the economic machinery into reverse.
His government has allowed an $81 billion tax hike to stand, despite well-publicized cases of the well-to-do – including actor Gerard Depardieu – moving to tax-friendlier countries.
Now a dispute with an upscale retail store on the Champs Elysees in Paris has made Hollande’s adherence to strict socialist regulation a matter of national dispute, The Wall Street Journal reports.
A Sephora perfume and cosmetics store has been violating a regulation to close at 9 p.m., staying open until midnight on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends. Other stores, including Apple Inc. and the grocery chain Monoprix, have been discreetly ignoring the regulation for years.
The longer hours have proved popular with customers – the Champs Elysees store does 20 percent of its business after 9 p.m. – and with staff. A protest petition supporting evening work, signed by 177 employees, appeared as a full-page ad in several newspapers.
The unions filed suit and convinced a court to order Sephora and a group of other offenders, including Apple, to close at 9 p.m.
Hollande insists that economic turnaround is nigh, but the unemployment rate is just under 11 percent and the youth unemployment rate was 26 percent last month. Neither shows any signs of improving. The government projects a moribund growth rate of 0.9 percent in gross domestic product for 2014.
Just like Sarkozy, Hollande will be stuck with a no-growth economy unless he lightens up on France’s rigid labor and commercial laws. Selling high-end perfumes to the wealthy at midnight is hardly likely to break down the French social and economic order. It may actually do the country some good.