Thursday, 3 October 2013

The curious case of the concierge and microeconomic reform

Many years ago, I fetched up in Paris on a quiet summer Sunday afternoon, and went to look up a friend who was living there at the time.

When I reached her address, I found it was one of those old Parisian houses converted into apartments, with a large central door which (I guessed from the outside) would lead, on the typical Paris pattern, through an archway into an interior courtyard and to staircases up to the apartments.
The door was closed. Nobody came or went. I couldn't get in. And this is long before you'd get your mobile out and ring up to be let in.

In those days - and for all I know, still - Parisian apartment blocks tended to come with a live-in manager cum overseer cum general busybody, the concierge. I took a punt that the shuttered windows on the ground floor might be the windows of the concierge's apartment, and knocked on them.
Nothing happened. I knocked again.

The shutters banged open and the concierge appeared: indeed, the concierge of all concierges, a wizened old hag with a voice that could file horseshoes at a hundred metres.

I did my polite best to explain that I was a friend of Mademoiselle R, but she interrupted me.

"Do you work on Sundays?"

"No, Madame..."

"Neither do I!", and she slammed the shutter in my face.

In her grizzled Parisian way, she was doing no more than stating the law of the land: Sunday trading was (in theory) not allowed, until liberalised to a degree in 2009. The sorts of places you might imagine should be open on Sundays (cafés, restaurants, petrol stations, museums, markets, and places like florists and fish shops with perishable produce) were allowed to be open on Sundays as of right (there's a bit of extra legal hoo-hah, but that's the gist), and other places could apply for permission.

Fast forward to today, and France is embroiled in a series of industrial disputes over both Sunday trading and late night opening.

Sephora, a fancy jewellery store, used to keep its flagship Champs Elysées outlet open till midnight: it's been forced to close at 9.00pm instead (never mind that it did a good slab of its trade after 9.00pm). Two DIY/hardware places, the likes of our Bunnings or Mitre 10, have been told to stop trading on Sundays at their outlets around the Paris region, much as our own Ministry of Labour dogsbodies harass garden centres that open on Easter Sunday (to their credit, they've told the local tribunal of jobsworths to stick their ban).

Maddeningly, the latest dispute is about exactly the sort of place you'd imagine should be open 24/7. Monoprix runs a chain of those centre-city mini-supermarkets you pop into when you need to pick up dishwasher powder or a pint of milk on the way home. Now, it's been told that the stores that used to open till 10.00pm (and a few that used to open till midnight) will have to close at 9.00pm.

Even more maddening again, the court only got involved in the first place because of a demarcation dispute. Younger folk will likely not know what a demarcation dispute is: it's when there's industrial action because of a fight between unions as to who's got the right to something. We used to have a lot of them, as did Australia, as we'd both imported the virus from the UK. In Monoprix's case,
management had actually cut an entirely voluntary deal with some of the unions representing its workforce, which had included sizeable pay increases (the company says 25% to 35%), time off in lieu, and other bits and bobs. But the biggest union, the CGT, wouldn't go along. And under French law, it can stymie the arrangements Monoprix made with the other unions.

There's good news here, and there's bad news.

First, the bad news. If there's a single thing that many of the Eurozone economies could do to revitalise their moribund economies, it would be to deregulate their service industries, and on this evidence they're still not doing it. They're riddled with inefficient, inequitable service industries that are a drag on the economy in multiple ways (I'll do a post shortly on 'employment protection' arrangements). Every man and his dog, from the IMF and the OECD and the European Commission to their own 'wise man' panels have told them the same thing, and they're still resisting despite the damage the existing arrangements are doing to consumer welfare, employment, cost competitiveness, innovation, flexibility, and economic growth.

But second, on the more positive side, there is, perhaps, a smidgeon of evidence emerging that the great European public is getting mightily sick of all of this.

In the sidebar on the left there's one of those online opinion polls that newspapers run (in this case from L'Express). It asks for readers' views on Sunday opening.

Only 9% took the unions' line ("une atteinte" etc, "an attack on workers' rights"). 9% were opposed on the reasonable enough view that "Sundays should be special". And 12% couldn't give a damn either way (that's the "cadet de mes soucis" answer).

But 9% said it was handy for shopping (the "bien pratique" answer, which includes one vote from me). And fully 67% of the responses were in favour of Sunday trading as "makes good sense in a period of high unemployment" (I didn't pick that one, because my view is that it makes good sense at any time).

Maybe we're seeing the beginning of a pushback from consumers finally pushed too far by one idiocy too many. Maybe. We'll see how it plays out.

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