French premier invokes stick, not carrot, to get economic reforms past Socialist rebels

PARIS – Those defending France’s famously stringent labour protections were in an uproar Tuesday as the Socialist government rammed through relatively modest reforms in the land of the 35-hour workweek.

The measure making it easier for businesses to open late and lay off workers is named for and blamed on Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who is taking on some of the most visible symbols of France’s stagnant economy.

By forcing the measure through without a vote Tuesday, the Socialist government, criticized for doing too little by champions of the free market, effectively is quelling a rebellion from within the party for doing too much.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls invoked rarely used special powers to force the bill through and French President Francois Hollande promised it would become law by July 14, linking his economic legacy to France’s national holiday.

“The country needs to reform, needs to advance,” Valls told lawmakers to scattered boos.

Among other things, the patchwork of measures allows stores to open 12 times a year on Sunday instead of five, lets stores expand evening hours and makes layoffs easier. It does not touch the country’s 35-hour workweek.

Marie-George Buffet, a Communist lawmaker among the opponents, said the government had gone too far in its “free-market policies, which affect employees’ rights at an unprecedented level.”

On the other side of the aisle, conservative lawmaker Eric Woerth said the measures were too timid, “pinpricks when we need, on the contrary, to reform our country.”

Facing a stagnant economy and unemployment hovering around 10 per cent since he took office in 2012, Hollande has shifted gears from his left-wing campaign persona. But about 40 Socialist lawmakers have publicly revolted against his new agenda of lower taxes and pro-business measures.

Unions have staged some street protests but the public reaction to the measure has been muted in a country that in the 1990s turned out tens of thousands against similar changes.

Valls resorted to bypassing a vote once and was forced to do so again Tuesday after amendments. He might even face a third time.

“(We) expect efficiency for our economy and our enterprises. It comes down to that,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers from both the conservatives and far-left have announced plans for a largely symbolic no-confidence vote in response, likely by the end of the week.

But the Socialist rebels are unlikely to go so far as to vote down their own government.