France's government survives vote over labor reform

AP News
|
Posted: May 12, 2016 3:10 PM
France's government survives vote over labor reform

PARIS (AP) — French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Thursday survived a no-confidence vote prompted by a divisive labor reform, as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the country's major cities to protest against the law.

Facing almost daily protests and legislative gridlock, the government decided to use a special measure to push the bill through without a vote in the lower house of parliament.

The conservatives tried to object by setting up a no-confidence vote, but with 246 votes they failed to gather the minimum of 288 needed to bring down the government.

The contested labor reform — including longer workdays, easier layoffs and weaker unions — will now be debated in the Senate. A date hasn't been set, but it's expected to be discussed in the coming weeks.

In his speech to lawmakers, Valls said he is proud of the law because it will help social progress and it is an "indispensable reform" in a globalized world.

A rain-drenched march through Paris was largely peaceful Thursday, but police fired tear gas at some rowdy demonstrators and arrested seven people. Similar scenes played out in Marseille on the Mediterranean, and Nantes on the Atlantic Coast.

The Interior Ministry said a total of 55,000 protesters took to the streets across France.

New street protests and strikes called by workers unions to reject the reform are already scheduled next week.

The labor reform is the boldest any French government, left or right, has tried in years and has unleashed daily, often-violent protests from wine country to the troubled suburbs.

It has torn apart the Socialists and further damaged their weak chances of keeping the presidency and legislative control in next year's elections.

Protesters are also angry about the government's decision to pass the law without a vote, using an article of the French Constitution instead.

"The government must listen. Democracy must prevail, within our movement and at the National Assembly," said Philippe Martinez, secretary-general of the CGT union.

Using the constitution to pass the law "has only fueled the anger of workers, students and citizens," he told reporters. "By ignoring us, the government will end up hitting a snag."

The French bill is relatively modest, especially after the government softened it to meet union demands.

It will not abolish the 35-hour workweek, but will allow companies to negotiate deals for up to 48 hours a week or 12-hour shifts. It will change rules for layoffs in companies, to create more flexibility during downturns — under conditions depending on the size of the businesses.

It even adds some new protections — a "right to disconnect" from emails and smartphones negotiated with employers — and a new 461-euro ($527) allowance for young job-seekers.

The head of the opposition conservatives in the lower house said the law doesn't go far enough to open up the country's economy. Christian Jacob criticized the bill as "empty".

Germany rebuilt its labor system in the early 2000s; Spain and Italy overhauled their labor markets amid recent debt crises. Yet in France, even small changes prompt anger.

"France is trying to do the bare minimum," said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform. But "politically it seems almost impossible to do this without street protests."

Critics see the bill as a symbol of something much bigger, a surrender to a heartless, globalized world, and a fundamental betrayal of hard-fought worker protections and a way of life that France has long prided itself on.

Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri acknowledged that the government made mistakes in how it handled the reform and how it explained it to voters. But she insisted in an interview published Thursday in Directmatin that it will help France better compete in "the world of today."

The government hopes to lure companies to invest in France and to hire — especially young people, bearing the brunt of chronic 10-percent unemployment. Yet among its fiercest critics are the young.

"They're incredibly conservative ... they don't understand the world has changed. If you want companies to hire, you need to make it easier to fire. That is a lesson that the Spanish and Italians learned, and the Germans learned," Grant said.

Unions are not letting go, threatening widespread strikes.

The protests are "a reaction against an obscene system of abuse of power by the oligarchy," far left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former presidential candidate who says the bill is a gift to CEOs and will worsen inequality, wrote on his blog. "This pillaging of the country by a caste that fattened itself on the back of workers has lasted long enough."

___

AP correspondent Alex Turnbull contributed to this story.