French gov't survives no-confidence vote triggered by rebels

AP News
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Posted: Feb 19, 2015 2:14 PM
French gov't survives no-confidence vote triggered by rebels

PARIS (AP) — France's prime minister survived a no-confidence vote Thursday called after rebel lawmakers in his Socialist Party teamed up with conservatives to fight his pro-business policies.

A total of 234 lawmakers voted for the censure motion that triggered a political crisis and forced Prime Minister Manuel Valls to defend his economic views. The count was far below the 289 needed for the motion to pass and bring down the government.

The plan to free up labor rules and regulations, authored by 37-year-old Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, has improbably put some Socialist lawmakers in the same camp as their most conservative counterparts.

Valls this week forced through the bill without a vote by invoking rarely used special powers. That drew a censure motion by the conservative opposition.

"You don't play dice with such an important bill for our country," the prime minister said in a speech defending his policies ahead of the vote— and his use of special powers to push through the measure.

"You don't take risks in the face of the irresponsibility and the immaturity of some," he said, referring to the rebel Socialists.

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.

Confrontation between the government and rebel lawmakers may not be over. The bill still has to go to the Senate and will ultimately return to the Assembly where the same scenario could play out again.

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.

Facing a lagging economy and an unemployment rate above 10 percent, French President Francois 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 about 40 Socialists revolted against that pro-business turn, regularly abstaining when economic measures came up for a vote. This week, some of them were threatening 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.

Hollande has pointed to the bill as an important demonstration of goodwill toward EU authorities, who allowed France yet again to put off reducing its deficit.

He now emerges weakened from the parliamentary drama, which proves that his government doesn't necessarily have a majority to enact economic bills in the future.