French MPs debate controversial bid to rejuvenate economy

26th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

French MPs on Monday thrashed out a controversial package of reforms designed to rejuvenate France's sclerotic economy, including a proposal to extend Sunday shopping that sparked angry demonstrations.

The reforms, presented by France's youthful Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, aim to shake up Europe's second-biggest economy as it battles with stubbornly high unemployment and near-zero growth.

"This country has its back to the wall, the status quo is no longer an option," he told parliament.

"This law will allow us to prove that we are capable of moving forward, that we are not prisoner to any dogma."

One of the most controversial planks of Macron's plan extends the number of Sundays that shops can open annually from five to a maximum of 12.

In areas designated "tourist zones" -- such as the iconic Champs Elysees in Paris -- the proposed law would allow shops to open every Sunday and until midnight every day, bringing the French capital more in line with London.

But this has proved hugely divisive in a country where the maximum working week is fixed at 35 hours and leisure time is sacrosanct.

After enormous demonstrations against the reform package last year, several unions plan to hit the streets again on Tuesday to protest against what they see as the "acceptance of work on Sundays and at night."

Another facet of the law -- opening up previously heavily regulated professions such as notarial lawyers -- sparked the unusual sight of these white-collar workers marching through the streets.

Other measures aiming to prise open up the notoriously closed French economy include throwing open inter-city bus routes to competition and privatising the airports of Nice and Lyon.

Under pressure from Brussels, the reform package also aims to improve the parlous state of France's public finances.

Paris sent shock waves through the European Union last year by going back on a promise to get its budget deficit under EU limits by this year, pushing the deadline to 2017.

- 'Fox in chicken coop' -

Macron opened the two-week debate in parliament on Monday, painting it in grandiose terms.

"The French have ambitions for themselves and their country that are noble and real. We have the enthusiasm of our young people who want to conquer the world -- that's the real treasure of our country," he said.

"But we have been turning that gold into lead for many years.

"This law doesn't make a mystery of its goals: more vitality, more justice and transparency, more rights to the French, particularly to the young."

The reforms have split the main parties, with many of the fiercest opponents coming from Macron's own Socialist party.

A left-wing rump of the party is bitterly opposed to the Sunday trading provisions and has warned the legislation is "not votable in its current form."

Meanwhile, some in the right-wing UMP party, which has been called to vote against the package, will defy party whips.

The Greens have attacked what they criticise as "deregulation and austerity" and the far-left party has described the package as "a fox in a chicken coop."

In a sign of how divisive the package is, some 3,000 amendments to the law have already been introduced, with more likely.

The reforms are likely to be "fine-tuned" during the debate, Macron has acknowledged.

However, a poll released on the eve of the debate suggested that French voters are broadly in favour of the measures.

Around three in five voters (61 percent) said they would vote in favour of the package, compared to 38 percent opposed, according to the survey by FTI Consulting.

Around seven out of 10 voters are in favour of extending Sunday trading and nearly eight out of 10 agree with opening up the so-called "regulated professions."

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© 2015 AFP

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