The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
By ROBERT ZARETSKYJAN. 25, 2015
Before the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks on Jan. 7, France was bracing for a dispute that, though neither violent nor volatile, nevertheless goes to the heart of the internal tensions over the role of religion in this devoutly secular country. After a tense, week-long negotiation between a special committee and the minister of the economy, Emmanuel Macron, the National Assembly will begin debate Monday on whether department stores and shops will be allowed to open more often on what has been a traditional day of rest.
During his presidential campaign in 2012, François Hollande lambasted the Right for its efforts to transform Sunday into a day like any other, devoted to business and material gain. The great battle of 2012, he declared, was over “the principle of Sunday as a day of rest, one that workers can devote to sport, to family, culture and to liberty.” If elected, Mr. Hollande promised, he “would keep vigil” over this sacrosanct day.
After three years of political disarray, economic malaise and mounting unemployment, however, Mr. Hollande has grown increasingly desperate. In mid-December, his treasury minister, Mr. Macron, offered a battery of legislation that seeks to liberalize some of the nation’s laws governing commerce and the liberal professions. One proposal in particular drew the ire of Mr. Hollande’s Socialist party rank-and-file, not to mention the Communists: The proposed law would allow stores or businesses to open 12 Sundays a year rather than just the five now permitted.
The Socialist dissident Martine Aubry published an opinion article in Le Monde that appeared the same day the government rolled out its legislation. Architect of the 35-hour week, a signature achievement of the Socialists introduced in 2000, Ms. Aubry dwelt on the meaning of the Sunday law. It is, she claimed, “a moment of truth speaking to the one question that truly matters: What kind of society do we want to live in?” Is this, she wondered, all the Left has left to offer: “A Sunday stroll in a shopping mall and the accumulation of consumer goods?”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a fiery leftist, was even more categorical. A relentless critic of the “savage capitalism” he associates with America, Mr. Mélenchon declared that the Revolution had freed the French to be human, not to become captives of a “blind consumerism.”
In the heat of battle, Mr. Mélenchon has found an unlikely ally in a traditional antagonist, the Catholic Church, which has also denounced the law. As one cleric explained, the church has joined the Communists for social as well as religious reasons. Rallying to the support of the Socialist Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who also opposes the new law, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois reminded his flock that France’s economic difficulties, though great, do not justify ignoring the benefits of “a common day of rest.”
The French have long had conflicted feelings about Sundays. In the early 1950s, the singer Juliette Greco — one of the muses for French existentialists — made her reputation with “I Hate Sundays.” While she derides Sunday as dead time, made for funerals and the hollow rites of the bourgeoisie, Greco also praises Sunday as the day for making love, not things.
Decidedly, as the French psychiatrist Serge Hefez notes: “Sundays are engraved in the French psyche.” But the day is also engraved in France’s history. During the last decades of the 19th century, French workers, laboring 10 hours a day, seven days a week, repeatedly went on strike to win a day of rest. In 1906, the government grudgingly conceded Sundays as a day of repose, hoping that if workers spent more time at home they would spend less time drinking in cafes. By the end of World War I, Sunday had taken root in the French cultural landscape — so much so that, in a 2008 poll, 84 percent declared that it was “important, indeed primordial, for family, cultural and religious life that Sunday remain the day of common rest.”
Pirouetting 180 degrees, Mr. Hollande, who had insisted Sunday was a day of republican repose, now dismisses it as a relic of an earlier age. Hammering at the same speaking points as Mr. Macron and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, President Hollande touts the liberty not to rest if one prefers to work (with greater pay, he always adds).
There is no clear consensus on the proposed law’s economic payoff. But one suspects that such concerns are secondary for both sides. Instead, traditionalists and modernizers are wrestling over a symbol — no small matter in a nation that, from the taking of the Bastille to the making of “Je suis Charlie,” understands the importance of political emblems.
As if to emphasize this very point, the marathon meeting between the Assembly representatives and Macron reached the finish line ... last Sunday. This was an unprecedented event in the annals of the Fifth Republic — even the National Assembly takes Sunday off.
Like politicians everywhere, France’s lawmakers are attached to symbols, but they are even more attached to being re-elected. The compromise bill that will be presented on Monday punts the issue to city governments, leaving it to mayors to decide on the number of Sundays stores can open. And so, as the philosopher André Comte-Sponville presciently observed: One spends one’s time “working, hurrying, waiting for the weekend. ... Finally, Sunday. For what? For nothing.”
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of World cultures and literatures at the University of Houston, and the author of the forthcoming “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 26, 2015, in The International New York Times.