updated 4/6/2008 4:43:27 PM ET 2008-04-06T20:43:27

Ikea was ordered to pay more than $700,000 last week for staying open on Sundays in a Paris suburb. A big French home repair chain was sued for nearly as much _ also for violating a 102-year-old requirement to shut up shop on Sunday.

Both cases show that the stakes are mounting in a long-running battle between French unions and retailers over shopping on the seventh day.

The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, encouraged by major companies, is trying to shed old restrictions as part of broader plans to loosen up the French economy.

Advocates of the 1906 law, determined to prevent its demise, are digging in and demanding ever-higher fines against violators of a rule they say upholds a less spending-obsessed French way of life.

"Working on Sundays calls into question the very foundation of society," said lawyer Vincent Lecourt, who represents the Workers Force union. "It is a day when we try to consume less ... when we try to have values that are a little different."

Focus is north of Paris
Lecourt, who will take another home repair shop to court April 18 in a similar case, has helped blaze a policing campaign in the Val d'Oise region north of Paris in recent months.

For decades, business owners around France have gotten around the law through loopholes allowing local officials to permit Sunday openings.

But in November, the loopholes were ruled illegal in the Val d'Oise region. Several stores including Ikea ignored the new restrictions, hoping that mayors and Sarkozy's free-market-friendly government would take their side.

Instead, companies in the Val d'Oise region are getting hit with unprecedented large penalties.

"This has never happened to us before," said Ikea spokeswoman Isabelle Cremoux. "Furniture stores around Paris have opened on Sundays for the last 40 years."

Other French regions have also seen a rise in legal battles over Sunday shopping, but the Val d'Oise struggle is seen as key because the region hosts many outlet stores and major chains that pull in big tax receipts. They also pull in shoppers from nearby Paris — where prices are higher and entire shopping districts are shuttered Sundays.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde tried unsuccessfully last summer to tackle the overall Sunday work rules. In December, parliament approved an amendment allowing furniture stores to open Sundays, and Lagarde promised deeper changes to the law.

Resistance remains even among some in Sarkozy's ruling conservative party UMP, which dominates parliament. But the high-profile cases and skyrocketing penalty fees in recent months have prompted a new parliamentary discussion of the rules, said legislative adviser Thomas Berettoni, who works with UMP lawmaker Richard Mallie on the issue.

"For some areas of France, Sunday is a major shopping day, and it would hurt them not to work," said Berettoni.

Big business for some on Sundays
Ikea, which is covered by the furniture store amendment, was sued by Workers Force for three Sundays that it stayed open before the new rules went into effect and was ordered to pay $707,500 by a regional court March 31.

The company says Sundays provide 20 to 25 percent of its weekly revenue in France. One memo from Ikea's French operations showed sales between approximately $314,000) and $755,000 per Sunday at that location in 2005-06.

Castorama, a home repair chain not covered by the furniture amendment, risked violating the rules in hopes that the overall law would be relaxed soon, a spokeswoman said.

Instead, the Workers Force union went to court Thursday seeking $550,000) from a Castorama store in Val D'Oise.

Lecourt promised not to rest until major chains start adhering to the rules.

"If they don't close, we'll force them to close, even if we have to go there by public force, with the police ... but at least things will be clear," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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