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How Sunday Came to be Established as a Day of Rest in France

The following is a guest post by Nicolas Boring, foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress.  Nicolas has previously contributed guest posts on French Law – Global Legal Collection Highlights and Napoleon Bonaparte and Mining Rights in France.

It is no secret that French workers benefit from a generous amount of vacation time.  Indeed, employees accrue 2.5 days of paid leave per month worked – which adds up to 30 days, or six weeks, per year.

However, it was not always thus, as I was reminded by a recent research assignment about the history of Sabbatarian laws in France.  Indeed, while some might debate the amount of vacation time that employees should be legally entitled to, we usually take it for granted that most workers should be entitled to a weekend.  But the story of the French law prohibiting employers from making employees work more than six days a week [Code du Travail (Labor Code), art. L3132-1], is quite tortuous.

Cover of a practical guide, published two years after the law establishing a mandatory weekly day of rest, to help employers and employees understand their rights and obligations under that law. Photo Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France [http://gallica.bnf.fr/html/conditions-dutilisation-des-contenus-de-gallica ]

Cover of a practical guide, published two years after the law establishing a mandatory weekly day of rest, to help employers and employees understand their rights and obligations under that law. Photo Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6121420f/f1.image]

Before the Industrial Revolution, people generally did not work on Sundays for religious reasons.  This tradition was given force of law by several French kings:  Charles VI in 1388, Louis IX in 1461, and Henry IV in 1598 [Gérard Vachet, Repos hebdomadaire (Weekly Rest), in Antoine Lyon-Caen (ed.), RÉPERTOIRE DE DROIT DU TRAVAIL (LABOR LAW REFERENCE), Vol. IV, (Dalloz, 2006), p.2].

These laws fell by the wayside after the French Revolution, when the Napoleonic regime re-established the Gregorian calendar. For a few years, the revolutionaries implemented a new calendar in which the traditional seven-day week was replaced by ten-day “décades” – Napoleon did away with that and returned to the standard Gregorian calendar.  It was generally believed that the old tradition of using Sunday as a day of rest would resume.  This did not happen, however, as the technological and economic changes brought about by the rise of industrialism encouraged many employers to require their employees to work throughout the week.  An 1814 law made it illegal to work on Sundays and on legal holidays, but this law fell into disuse during the time of the July Monarchy (1830) when Catholicism ceased to be France’s official state religion.

After 1830, a vast number of French workers had to be at their jobs every day, seven days a week.  There was growing awareness and concern for the social and public health consequences of this state of affairs.   But change was very slow in coming.  A few laws were passed in 1841, 1851, and 1892, instituting a mandatory day of rest for children, apprentices, and women, respectively.  But it was not until 1906 that the concept of a mandatory day of rest was expanded to all salaried employees of commercial and industrial establishments by the Loi du 13 juillet 1906 établissant le repos hebdomadaire en faveur des employés et ouvriers (Law of July 13, 1906, Establishing Weekly Rest for the Benefit of Employees and Workers), which also set Sunday as the normal day of rest.  A copy of this 1906 law can be found on the website of the French Ministry of Labor and Employment.

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