Award-winning baker burned by French work rules

Award-winning baker burned by French work rules
Baguette and croissant

Stephane Cazenave may have first won national acclaim after being hailed for baking the best baguette in France, but now he has become a household name not for his bread but for breaching regulations requiring him to close his store once a week.

His case has hit headlines as the country is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to allow Sunday working.

Cazenave from the southern Landes region complied with laws requiring him to give his employees two days off per week, but defied rules obliging him to shut his shop for at least one day.

Under the threat of prosecution he recently began closing his shop, but he fumes at the rigidity of the rules.

"This represents a loss of 250,000 euros (S$386,000) in sales per year, so I am going to have to let one or two employees go," said Cazenave, who won the 2014 competition for the country's best baguette, the long, thin bread that remains a daily staple. The award was voted for by the confederation of French bakers.

Cazenave's case comes as French lawmakers are in the midst of debating a bill introduced by economy minister Emmanuel Macron that seeks to reduce red tape which many businesses believe is strangling growth in an economy that is stagnating.

One of the most polemical debates has been around proposals to ease restrictions on shops opening on Sunday.

Most retail shops are prohibited from opening on Sunday, with supermarkets allowed to open until 1 pm.

Bakeries have a special rule, with days off staggered so the French can get a freshly baked baguette every day of the week.

Absurdity of our system

Former prime minister Francois Fillon of the conservative opposition UMP party said he stood behind Cazenave.

"That work can be seen as a crime in our country and the passion of a craftsman bridled in such a way should be a wake up call for us to the absurdity of our system," he wrote on his blog.

The head of the centrist Modem group, Francois Bayrou, said "we should leave alone those who want to work." The former presidential candidate said "one gets the impression that the desire to create, to create new jobs is viewed as something bad in France and is punished." France's Socialist government, which is pushing the reform measures through parliament, says they will provide the needed flexibility.

"We need the capability - and this is what the debate on the Macron bill and the simplification drive underway is about - to adapt and have the possibility to open discussions and negotiations that are clear to everyone," said Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll.

However, he noted that the rules concerning days off for bakeries had been adopted following discussions with bakers.

And bakers still support them, said Jean-Pierre Crouzet, head of the National Baker's and Confectioner's Confederation.

"They aren't to prevent people from working but to ensure a balance, to promote the quality of products," he told AFP.

He said the rules encourage competition because they force people to try another bakery at least once per week.

Easing restrictions on Sunday shop openings has been divisive, with opponents saying they ensure most retail workers get to spend time with their families.

Proponents argue higher wages offered for Sunday work would help students and workers who need to top up their earnings, and that the shifts will be voluntary.

A poll conducted in November found that two-thirds of French support Sunday shopping. Even 57 per cent of those who declared themselves as being on the left politically supported easing the restrictions.

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