Feb 19, 2015 5:28 AM
France's Socialist rebellion puts focus on economic reform
The Associated Press
PARIS (AP) France's prime minister faced a parliamentary showdown Thursday with the fate of his government in the balance as rebels within his own Socialist Party teamed up with conservatives to demand he scrap pro-business policies he rammed through Parliament without a vote.
The debate in France's lower house of Parliament was rife with political tension, as conservative opposition's leader Christian Jacob attacked the government. "We're asking the Assembly to censure you because your economic and social policies are a total failure," Jacob said, directly addressing Valls.
Though Manuel Valls will probably win Thursday's censure motion, the battle gives urgency to the question of whether Socialism and France should evolve to meet Europe's economic expectations. If Valls loses, the government falls. That seems unlikely because even the Socialist mavericks don't want to risk their majority.
And there's only been one case in modern French history in 1962 in which a no-confidence vote has succeeded in bringing down a government.
The plan to free up labor rules and regulations, authored by Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, has improbably put some Socialist lawmakers in the same camp as their most conservative counterparts. The bill includes a patchwork of measures including allowing more stores to open on Sundays and evenings, making it easier for employers to lay off workers and fostering greater competition in regulated professions such as auctioneers and notaries.
Valls, who will speak to Parliament later Thursday, this week forced through the bill without a vote by invoking rarely used special powers. That drew a censure motion by the conservative opposition, and suddenly an obscure loophole in the French constitution also became a cause celebre for Socialist renegades who contested Macron's bill.
France's Socialist party is fractured between a pro-business faction including Valls and Macron and others who want to protect French industry and the country's considerable social and health benefits.
The battle in Parliament comes as statistics released Thursday show that inflation in France turned negative last month for the first time since October 2009, with prices falling 0.4 percent from a year earlier.
Marc Touati, a French economist and proponent of "shock therapy" for his country, said it was disturbing that the government could not even accomplish what he described as "a mini-reform."
"It cannot pass through the normal way, which shows that France, unfortunately, is un-reformable. That is very worrying and sends a very bad signal to the world" at a time when France's growth forecast is below 1 percent for 2015.
"When you make a comparison to the sacrifices made by the Spanish, Germans, Italians, Portuguese and Irish ... I'm worried about France," he said.
French President Francois Hollande has pointed to the measure as an important demonstration of goodwill toward EU authorities, who allowed France yet again to put off reducing its deficit. "We have no time to lose," he said Thursday.
Facing a lagging economy and an unemployment rate above 10 percent, Hollande changed course on his leftwing program in January 2014 when he announced a plan to lower taxes and spur employment. He promised to ease payroll taxes by up to 40 billion euros ($50 billion) by 2017 if businesses would hire, although the jobless rate has hardly budged. At the same time, France abandoned its pledge to bring its deficit below 3 percent in 2015, as required by EU rules.
Macron, a former investment banker, became economy minister in August. In an interview with The Associated Press last month, he said he wanted to make France "a haven for entrepreneurs."
A group of Socialists revolted against that plan, regularly abstaining when economic measures came up for a vote. This week, about two dozen of them were ready to vote against Macron's bill, infuriated especially by the plan to make it easier for shops to open on Sundays.
Christian Paul, a leader of the Socialist mavericks, insisted they wouldn't allow Valls' government to fall. But he strongly criticized the lack of guarantees for Sunday workers and said jobs would be destroyed in small shops unable to compete with malls and chain stores.