(MENAFN - AFP) Braving a court ban, 14 home improvement stores in France opened to the public Sunday in an increasingly bitter tug of war with the government over a law prohibiting trading on the traditional day of rest.
The move comes amid intense debate over France's labour practices. The government is seeking to continue a long tradition ruling out Sunday and late-night work, but at a time of record high unemployment, many employees regard the ban as antiquated.
Last week, both Leroy Merlin and Castorama, two home improvement chains, were ordered by a court to stop opening their stores in the Paris area on Sundays or face a fine of 120,000 euros (162,000) per shop and per day.
But on Sunday, they opened anyway amid anger among employees and customers.
"I'm outraged by the court decision: All of a sudden, I risk ending up without a salary, which threatens my studies," said Eleanor Leloup, a 24-year-old chiropractic student who works every weekend at one of the affected Leroy Merlin stores in Ivry-sur-Seine, next to Paris.
Smahene, another employee at the store, wore a T-shirt blazoned with the words "Yes week-end", in a nudge to the "Yes we can" slogan used by US President Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign.
Spokespeople for both chains denounced a confusing ban that allows some stores to open in certain cases.
Under French law, retailers can only open on a Sunday under very specific conditions -- if they are located in a tourist area, for instance. Any shop selling food, such as a butcher, can also trade until 1 pm.
"Some stores can open on Sundays without a problem and others must ask for special dispensations. It would be good if everyone received equal treatment," a Castorama spokeswoman told AFP.
Leroy Merlin, meanwhile, blasted a "staggering imbroglio" when it came to permits given to some stores to open, and not to others.
Some ministers have acknowledged that changes need to be made, and early Sunday evening, the government announced a special meeting would take place on Monday morning "to make things evolve."
Marisol Touraine, the minister for social affairs and health, said that Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault would meet the ministers concerned.
"The prime minister will meet the ministers tomorrow to see how things may evolve," she told French television. "Clearly the status quo is not tenable."
The French government spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said the PM would meet a "number of ministers that can engage in a discussion on this issue but keep in mind the interest of employees is to preserve the right to Sunday rest".
Expected to be among those at the meeting are the labour and employment minister Michel Sapin, Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, and Sylvia Pinel, minister for commerce and the crafts industry.
In an interview with Sunday's Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Pinel acknowledged that there was "a complexity in the law" that demanded clarification.
And Bruno Le Roux, head of the ruling Socialists' lower house National Assembly faction, said on Radio J that retailers should be given the "possibility" of working Sundays.
But other politicians have rebuked the two home improvement chains.
Benoit Hamon, Consumer Affairs Minister, said Saturday it was "unacceptable that a brand does not implement a judicial decision."
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, meanwhile, said rules must be respected as "we are a state ruled by law."
'People are not being allowed to work'
By-and-large, customers who visited the DIY stores on Sunday said they supported the decision to remain open.
"I'm ashamed, I think it's outrageous that in this country, people are not being allowed to work. And then people are surprised that there is unemployment," said Elisabeth Armani, a Parisian DIY lover shopping at the Ivry Leroy Merlin store.
"Where's the petition? I came here on purpose to encourage these young people who want to work Sundays, we support you," Philippe Dafit, another customer, told employees who were distributing leaflets at the entrance to the store.
The Sunday controversy comes on top of another similar debate that emerged last week in France -- this time over a law banning late-night work.
A court ruled Monday that cosmetics retailer Sephora must close its flagship Paris store by 9 pm after it had been keeping it open until midnight on weekdays and up to 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays, to capitalise on demand for late-night shopping.
Employees of the store have since blasted the unions that brought the case for preventing them from opting to work longer hours for extra pay, at a time when unemployment stands at a record 10.9 percent.
The retailer has said it will appeal the court order.