PARIS — French Prime Minister Manuel Valls used an executive decree Tuesday to force a controversial labor reform bill through parliament, triggering calls for him to step down amid fresh street protests.
Valls, who has tied his own credibility to passing the bill, told a group of Socialist MPs that he had no choice but to pass the bill without debate, because leftist rebels in the party threatened to block it.
“I think it’s time to stop playing around,” Valls told the MPs, according to Le Figaro.
In tune with Valls’ image as a tough reformer, his decision to use the special “49.3” decree (so named after its number in the French Constitution) infuriated left-wing critics and deepened a split in the Socialist party.
It’s also likely to further depress the approval scores of a minister who, just two years ago, was the most popular in his government. Now Valls’ ratings are just above those of President François Hollande, France’s least popular leader since World War II.
Last week, a poll by Harris Interactive showed their approval scores at 22 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
“Without debate, democracy is a dead star,” tweeted Christiane Taubira, a leftist former justice minister who resigned in January over a previous disagreement with Valls.
Les violences institutionnelles réciproques, 49.3 et défiance, sont toujours un échec. Sans débat, la démocratie est un astre mort.
— Christiane Taubira (@ChTaubira) July 5, 2016
“I deplore that the prime minister Manuel Valls refuses to seek a compromise and … prefers to use the 49-3,” said Socialist MP Jean-Patrick Gille.
‘He should resign’
Karine Berger, an influential Socialist MP, went further — calling for Valls to step down.
“Personally, I consider that using the 49.3 twice testifies to the fact that there is no majority in parliament behind him,” she said on France Culture radio. “He should resign.”
While Valls has given no suggestion he intends to resign, the calls for him to go underscore how damaging the labor reform has been for his reputation and that of Hollande.
Badly written in its original version, and inadequately explained to the French public, it has plagued the executive for the past six months with a constant drumbeat of criticism and street protests.
On Tuesday, protesters once again hit the streets of French cities.
Their chants called for the withdrawal of a bill that many see as a gift to corporations at the expense of workers. But they also directed their rage at the government and at a Socialist party which many accuse of having abandoned workers.
“Everybody hates the PS!” shouted one group of protesters in Paris, using the party’s French initials.
While protests against the labor bill have failed to gather the sort of gigantic crowds that buried previous reforms, the fact that they are carrying on has worn down the government.
Several senior Socialists have called privately for the government to give in and abandon the unpopular bill.
But for Valls, who has built his reputation as a no-nonsense, pro-reform leftist, there has never been a question of backing down.
Doing so would scupper his government’s flagship economic reform and give credit to all doubters who said his country was incapable of overhauling its labor system.
Passing it, by contrast, would mark a first step toward restoring France’s damaged economic credibility on the European stage — where many neighbors, Germany chiefly, look warily on Paris’ ability to change.
Fight of a lifetime for unions
The only problem is that French unions don’t share the government’s view.
To the CGT, the hard-line union leading the protests, the bill’s main feature — allowing firms to negotiate in-house deals with trade unions, thus bypassing the 3,200-page labor code — is a death blow for workers’ rights.
The government argues it would boost growth and stimulate employment by making companies more nimble and better able to weather downturns in demand.
What’s sure is that the bill would weaken unions. By shifting the focus of labor negotiations to the company level, the reform effectively short-circuits union chiefs in the professional sectors, where they usually negotiate to set labor conditions for tens of thousands of workers at once.
Philippe Martinez, the CGT’s secretary-general, warned of further protests against the bill — even if it’s adopted by parliament.
“We’re going to maintain the climate that we’ve known for the past four months and are thinking very concretely of other [protests] in the fall,” he told communist newspaper L’Humanité.
“I would remind you that there are laws that have been passed, but never applied,” he added.
By Nicholas Vinocur