France’s small shopkeepers, long celebrated for their baguettes, roasted chickens or quaint selection of shoes, are waging a fierce fight against a government bill that would allow more supermarkets to open.
The bill on “modernization of the economy” that goes before parliament this week is described by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government as a bid to chip away at over-regulation in the retail sector and inject competition to bring down prices.
But even Sarkozy’s right-wing party is up in arms over the legislation amid heavy lobbying by shopkeepers who warn it will lead to the demise of small business, long considered vital to French life in towns and city neighborhoods.
“If this is allowed to go through, we fear for the survival of small shops in France because there will be very, very strong competition from big retailers and we will not be able to hold out if they start opening everywhere,” said Jean-Eudes Du Mesnil, secretary general of the CGPME group of small and medium-sized businesses.
At issue is a provision that would allow supermarkets of fewer than 1,000m2 to open without authorization from a department-level planning commission — raising a threshold that currently applies to stores smaller than 300m2.
The government argues the measure will allow hard-discount stores to get a bigger share of the retail market in France, bringing in low-priced goods to consumers who have grown increasingly worried about spending power.
Consumer Affairs Minister Luc Chatel last week went comparison shopping in France and Germany and found prices across the border to be 14 percent lower, with such items as Saupiquet tuna, Kinder chocolate and Nivea hand cream much cheaper in German stores.
Sarkozy defended the bill, arguing that it was in sync with modern-day consumerism in France.
“We just don’t shop in 2008 like we did in 1950,” he said.
Another provision that would do away with some of the complicated rules for negotiating prices between retailers and suppliers has rattled small business as well as the main farmers’ union, the FNSEA, and the food industry group Ania.
The heads of France’s five hypermarket chains have repeatedly argued that current rules on setting the wholesale price were the prime reason for a more costly grocery bill in France than in Germany.
“What the government is doing is handing over the keys to the house called France to big retailers,” said Jacques Gerbault, a vice president of the RSI association of independent businesses.
Shops that once offered affordable produce are being wiped out, unable to compete with hypermarkets since they took off in France in the 1980s, leaving only high-end or fine food boutiques standing, Gerbault said.
Half of France’s 36,000 small towns and villages no longer have a single independently owned shop on their main street, CGPME said.
Once a fixture of France’s main street, legions of butchers, bakers and cheesemongers have shut down and been replaced by banks, insurance companies or employment agencies, the group said.
One-third of small food shops have gone out of the business over the past 20 years, the RSI association said.
“Once small shops are gone, it’s over,” Du Mesnil said. “You can’t resurrect the dead.”