By Alexandria Sage and Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS (Reuters) - A newspaper open on the bar of this Paris cafe tells of a row over France's Sunday trading rules. But the bar owner, Zhang Chang, says he has little time to follow such debates. He's too busy working.
While French workers worry the country's long economic downturn could mean the end of laws banning Sunday trading and enforcing a 35-hour week, Zhang and Chinese immigrants like him are quietly getting ahead the old-fashioned way - 11 hours a day, six days a week.
"As I see it, when you work, you're paid. So why stop at 35 hours?" he asks, perplexed by France's landmark law which shaved four hours off the statutory working week in the late 1990s.
Zhang owns the Cafe Le Marais in central Paris and is part of a wave of entrepreneurial migrants from China's coastal Wenzhou region who are taking over France's "bar tabac" business. They are doing it by sweat and sacrifice - and by navigating restrictive labour rules, focusing on the bar and restaurant sector that is exempt from the 35-hour rule and the Sunday trading ban, unlike many other industries.
That approach, and their work ethos, runs counter to the work-life balance long treasured by many French and vigorously defended by their unions over the past century - but it chimes with others who say it may be time for a change.
Some 71 percent of French said in a recent Ifop poll they would be willing to work Sundays if their pay was boosted. And many white-collar French workers and business-owners say that in reality they already work much longer than 35 hours a week.
However President Francois Hollande, unwilling to raise the unions' ire, has so far defended the ban on Sunday trading and, despite a reform this year that eased some rigidity in labour rules, has sidestepped the issue of the 35-hour work week.
While the debate continues, the Chinese plough on.
"We the Chinese think all the unemployment is because people can't work enough," said Xiao, a restaurant owner who declined to give her last name as she dished out Wenzhou specialities such as chewy stir-fried rice cake and beef hot pot to young Paris professionals.
Even the dining habits of the French reveal a lack of get up and go, she added. "I have people who linger for three hours after they're done eating. It drives me crazy!"
The success of Zhang and Xiao is just another sign of China's growing presence in France, alongside the Asian nation's ownership of famed vineyards, its billion-euro holdings in blue-chips such as energy firm GDP Suez and the daily busloads of Chinese tourists spending hard in Paris department stores.
Zhang arrived in 1996 without working papers and - like most of the 150,000 Wenzhou immigrants who came in the 1980s and 90s - worked off-the-books jobs until he obtained his green card. That's a classic pattern among Wenzhou immigrants, who have formed the economic engine of France's Asian community, says researcher Richard Beraha, author of "China in Paris."
"They don't expect anything from the French state, since they learned to stay hidden, often arriving without papers," he said. "Unemployment in France is of little concern, because essentially they're all entrepreneurs. It's a state of mind."
Wenzhou, a port city 500 km south of Shanghai, is known for a culture of private enterprise, which the immigrants bring with them. Family members furnish labour and capital - it takes seed money of just 50,000 euros ($67,800) to start a takeout food shop, said Beraha, and staffing it with relatives keeps labour costs low.
Many are pouring their energies into bar-tabacs - a focal point of French life where locals can drink, buy cigarettes and bet on horses that is being abandoned by many French owners on the grounds it is too labour-intensive for too little profit. Sixty percent of the businesses for sale in Paris are being purchased by Asian buyers, most of them Chinese, said Gerard Bohelay, head of the Paris federation of bar-tabac owners.
"I'm the only one left," sighed Patrick Loubiere, whose parents were among many French country people from the central Auvergne region to seek a better life in Paris. They set up Le Celtic bar-tabac, near Zhang's Le Cafe Marais, that he now runs.
"The younger generation doesn't want to do it," added Loubiere, who doubts his son will take over the business. "It's too early in the morning for some, too late at night for others. They're getting lazy."
Says Yves Boungnong, another bar-tabac owner whose parents emigrated from Laos in the 1970s: "It's not the French who want to work here, it's the immigrants."
The takeover has irritated some locals who say it's easier to find bok choy than baguettes in some areas, and protest the reluctance of some Chinese bar-tabac owners to serve French food along with beer and cigarettes.
Right-leaning magazine Le Point picked up on this feeling in a recent article about Chinese entrepreneurs which asked "How the devil do they do it?" then listed "five commandments": 1) work 80 hours a week 2) sleep in your shop 3) don't pay your employees as they are family members 4) don't contribute to the system and 5) don't pay taxes.
Although an investigation into illegal activity in the Paris bar-tabac industry was opened last year, Beraha said tax evasion is no more prevalent in the Chinese community than in others.
Pierre Aidenbaum, mayor of the Third Arrondissement, where the Chinese took over empty Jewish textiles storefronts in the 1950s, attributes such feelings to envy in tough times: "It's jealousy towards your neighbour, who has made it."
Conflicts a decade ago between locals and Chinese were resolved after wholesale businesses agreed to shut on Sundays and workshops stopped using sewing machines after 8pm, he said.
"We have more problems today with the noise from the cafe terraces than the noise from the Chinese workshops," he said.
Still, abuses exist. A 2005 report for the Geneva-based International Labour Organization found workplace rules were regularly flouted in Chinese restaurants and sweatshops and that many used subcontractors hiring illegal immigrants.
Those immigrants further down the ladder are often the ones who are really struggling. Often recent arrivals from northeast China, lacking family in France, they are looked down upon by those from Wenzhou and scrape by as nannies, cooks, delivery men and manicurists. Many women struggling to support a family turn to prostitution in order to repay the cost of being smuggled into the country - often more than 12,000 euros - police say.
"Economic success does exist, but for a small minority," said Donatien Schramm, who teaches French to new Chinese immigrants. "So many who don't have shops - they have to work in small factories, restaurants, take side jobs."
One woman, "Aiyim," said she regretted having made the long, expensive journey to France 12 years ago. Unable to get working papers, she supports herself and a son in China working illegally as a nanny and maid for a French banker, who pays her the equivalent of the minimum wage for around-the-clock work.
Asked how she sees her future, Aiyim smiles sadly: "I can't even think about it. I have to focus on working every day."
There are signs that French attitudes to longer working hours are starting to shift. In a first for the country, workers from home improvement (DIY) chains recently took to the streets to protest a court ruling ordering them to close on Sunday, when many other stores are also banned from trading. Employees of cosmetics store Sephora are also campaigning to overturn another ruling, which forbade its Champs Elysees outlet to stay open until midnight.
But that urge to work is something Bohelay of the bar-tabac group warned needed to be more in evidence in France.
"People aren't hungry here anymore," he said. "But they're going to have to get back to work, because the new immigrants are ready to work twice as hard, for twice as long, and they will end up being the bosses."
($1 = 0.7373 euros)
(Editing by Sophie Walker)