French government forces through economic reforms

17th February 2015, Comments 0 comments

France's government on Tuesday forced a key package of economic reforms through parliament without a vote but risked a confidence motion that could in theory bring it down.

Struggling to win a parliament majority for a set of reforms seen as vital to pep up the sluggish economy, Prime Minister Manuel Valls used a rare constitutional move to push the bill through parliament.

The bill is now considered approved unless parliament votes through a motion of no-confidence bringing down the government -- which analysts see as highly unlikely.

A significant rump of leftist rebels in the ruling Socialists had vowed to vote against the bill or abstain, as they see the reforms as too pro-business, but they are unlikely to topple the government over them.

"I won't take a risk with a bill like this which I consider essential for our economy," Valls told deputies when it became clear the vote was too close to call.

The reforms, which include extending the number of Sundays shops can stay open and freeing up certain sectors of the economy, have proved extremely divisive across the political spectrum in France.

The right-wing opposition UMP party has already vowed to table a vote of no-confidence but political analysts say the government is not likely to fall.

"There's almost no risk" that the government would lose a confidence vote, said Philippe Braud, a political analyst.

"I wouldn't say it's a failure. It's a precautionary measure that shows that the majority is indeed slim," said Braud, who added: "It's a perfectly consitutional procedure."

- Tourist shopping -

In rowdy scenes in parliament, the country's energetic and youthful banker-turned-economy minister Emmanuel Macron passionately defended his bill, which he sees as vital to energise the eurozone's second-largest economy.

A major plank of the reform package is to extend the number of Sundays that shops are allowed to open from a maximum of five per year to 12.

In certain areas classed as "international tourist zones" -- such as in Paris the Champs Elysees, the Saint-Germain area and the Boulevard Haussmann where most of the capital's department stores are based -- shops would be able to open every Sunday.

Shops in these zones, set also to be created in the French Riviera cities of Cannes and Nice, will also be able to stay open until midnight seven days a week.

Employees working between 9:00 pm and midnight will receive double pay and their trip home, and the employer will also cover any childcare costs.

With the reforms, Paris is bidding to cement its reputation as the world's number-one tourist destination.

"Do we want millions and millions of tourists -- notably Chinese -- who come to the capital to leave us and go and do their shopping in London on a Sunday?" asked Valls in a recent interview.

But the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is staunchly opposed to extending Sunday opening and has described it as a "backward step for democracy."

- Lawyers in the streets -

Macron's reform proposals have triggered such passions that he claims to have received death threats.

Among them are plans to open up white-collar professions such as notarial lawyers, who have traditionally received a fixed fee regardless of the size of the job.

The threat of competition sparked the unusual sight of these middle-class workers downing pencils and pounding the streets in protest.

France's economy is desperately in need of a boost. It registered a meagre 0.4 percent growth last year and unemployment has refused to come down from record highs.

President Francois Hollande is pinning his hopes on the Macron reforms, plus a package of tax breaks for business in return for job pledges, known as the Responsibility Pact.

He has vowed not to seek re-election in the next presidential vote in 2017 if he fails to reduce unemployment.

Most economists believe a growth rate of around 1.5 percent is required to create jobs.

Ahead of the vote, the head of the powerful MEDEF business lobby, Pierre Gattaz, said he was disappointed that the reforms had been "watered down" in parliament.

"We need five to 10" such reforms to move forward, Gattaz said.

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© 2015 AFP

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