Amazing Changes in France

Yesterday and today have come news that two of the things I thought were the worst or weirdest about France are being changed, the stores being closed on Sundays, and the schools being closed on Wednesdays.

Yesterday France24 reported, on the first day of the new school year, that for the first time French children will be going to school five days a week. Until now they got to stay home on Wednesdays, apparently because of a 19th century idea they were then supposed to study their catechisms, Sunday School on Wednesdays.

When we lived in Strasbourg I thought this was the weirdest thing, and I felt very sorry for the parents, who had to take off work or make other arrangements for childcare on Wednesdays. But bizarrely, according to France24, the loudest protests are coming from the parents!

Apparently this is because to make up for the lost Wednesdays, French schoolchildren were forced to stay at school much longer on the other days. So the parents are upset that in return for a normal life on Wednesdays, they will have to pick up their kids the same time as the rest of us. (And maybe the French will consider rec centers and other after school activities. This is in fact one argument for the reform, to give schools the opportunity to offer extra-curicular activites. In which case the parents won’t have to pick up their kids earlier at all.)

The OECD’s director of education, interviewed on France24, commented that while French children spent more hours in the classroom than those almost anywhere else in the world, their actual results were somewhere in the middle and falling. Sadly the French school system is totally inflexible and top down. The OECD director argued the French could learn something from the countries of East Asia, where a more flexible approach results in kids learning more.

Today Swedish Radio News reports that French President Francois Hollande wants to see stores in his country open on Sundays. His motivation is the country’s horrible unemployment rate. Sunday open stores means more jobs just to fill the longer hours, but also will probably mean a big increase in commerce, which can’t hurt the economy.

Nowadays there are a handful of convenience stores open in France on Sundays. I’m told that the situation is better in Paris than in was in Strasbourg, where there were only a couple of hole-in-the-wall tiny grocery stores open, with limited offerings and high prices. But life-savers if you ran out of butter or wine.

The argument was that Sunday was a day for families to get together, but the actual result was that shopping on Saturdays was a horrible experience, to be avoided at all costs. The crowds in French stores on Saturdays are something to behold, but better to stay away from. Opening stores on Sundays will even out the experience, and of course, if families want to get together there’s nothing stopping them just because the stores are open.

The main objection to this reform comes from the CGT union, apparently because their members don’t want to have to work on Sundays. They don’t seem to grasp that working Sunday means not working another day in the week, and means higher pay. Plus in most cases the veteran employees would get to work during the week, and the newbies would work weekends.

There was one cogent argument against in the Swedish Radio News report, someone thought that smaller stores wouldn’t be able to afford paying higher salarires, so couldn’t open on Sundays and would lose out. That’s possible, but doesn’t seem to have happened in other countries with Sunday-open stores, should sort itself out.

When I came to Sweden virtually all stores were closed on Sundays and holidays (which meant you couldn’t even buy food for four days over Easter, which came as a hungry shock to we foreign students). That’s changed now, the little stores didn’t suffer, and virtually no one wants to return to the old system.

There still are European countries that close down on Sundays, like Germany and Denmark.

But it’s nice to see France slowly taking steps into the 20th Century.

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