Italy's new prime minister, technocrat Mario Monti, wants to stimulate growth by boosting productivity and competitiveness. A new law that went into effect Jan. 1 allows shops, cafes and restaurants to stay open 24/7 all year long, holidays included. This deregulation puts Italy ahead of many European countries, but many Italians are resisting.
Friday — the Day of the Epiphany — was the first holiday of the year. In Rome, however, hardly anyone took advantage of the liberalized shop hours.
Restaurants were open, and so were a few cafes. But people looking for groceries were out of luck. Bakeries were closed, so were butchers and greengrocers. Even the trendy organic food shop was shuttered tight.
Italian customs are hard to change.
Carlo Cicchitto owns a mom-and-pop household goods shop, but has no intention to open on a holiday.
"We can't be slaves to the store. If we keep it open, utility costs would rise," he says in Italian. "This new law may be good for customers, but for us shopkeepers, it's too big a sacrifice."
The governors of two regions are planning to challenge the new law in court. Despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they claim deregulated shop hours will create problems for small businesses and that consumerism is not a good answer to the economic crisis.
On the competitiveness scale, Italy is at the bottom of the list of industrialized countries. The economy is dominated by powerful business lobbies, representing, for example, pharmacists, notaries, lawyers and taxi drivers.
Professional guilds determine not only membership and pay scales, but also work hours. In the case of shops, they decide the dates sales can take place.
Political scientist James Walston of the American University of Rome says Italian guilds are so deep-seated and part of the social fabric that they'll be a challenge for the prime minister.
"The chances of Monti defeating all of them and the chances of him introducing some kind of Thatcher or Reagan free-market Italy are very, very slim," he says.
Deregulation is opening up new paths for some, though. On the holiday of the Epiphany, one enterprising young man drew crowds of customers. At his outdoor stand, he demonstrated a simple kitchen gadget that peels, cores and slices vegetables.
This master salesman is Ahmed, an Egyptian. It's a sign that immigrants — not chained to old traditions — are perhaps best equipped to take advantage of new opportunities.
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