Embattled French government scrapes through confidence vote17 september 2014, 10:01
France's crisis-hit government on Tuesday narrowly won a crunch parliamentary vote of confidence in its economic reform path, in a rare respite for the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande, AFP reports.
French deputies voted 269 to 244 in favour of the government's policies, after an impassioned speech by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who vowed to press ahead with controversial spending cuts and tax breaks for companies.
"We are going to continue this path until the end of the five-year term, until the end of the parliamentary term, because the French people want us to roll up our sleeves and for us to be up to the challenge, for them and for France," said Valls to loud cheers.
"There will be no U-turn, no change in direction, no zig-zagging," pledged Valls, defending his controversial Responsibility Pact, with 40 billion euros ($52 billion) in tax breaks for companies, funded by 50 billion euros in public spending cuts.
"Nothing must let us deviate from our commitment to save 50 billion euros within three years," Valls told a raucous parliamentary session in a 46-minute speech that received a standing ovation from most members of his Socialist Party.
However, the vote was closer than a similar exercise after he was appointed in April, when the government won 306 votes.
Attention now turns to a rare news conference by the embattled Hollande later this week, whose popularity is at rock-bottom amid record high unemployment and stagnant growth.
'A great country'
Valls called the vote weeks ago following an emergency cabinet reshuffle designed to flush out dissenters.
The prime minister urged unity, particularly in the face of the threat posed by the far-right National Front, which made huge strides in recent local elections and which he has warned is "at the gates of power".
Departing from his prepared speech, he cried: "I've had enough of this permanent criticism of France and its ability to exert influence in the world.
"France is a great country. France deserves our respect because France is respected in the world and if we, public officials, cannot defend France, who else is going to defend it at this time?"
However, despite the appeals for unity, a hard-core rump on the left flank of the Socialist Party -- around 30 MPs according to party sources -- abstained from voting in protest at what they see as a pro-business lurch to the right.
Leading Socialist rebel MP Christian Paul said those abstaining were registering a protest at "a prime minister who refuses to change a policy which the majority of French people think is not working and not fair."
'Fear of catastrophe'
In an indication of the seriousness of the crisis facing France, a new poll showed two-thirds of voters believe there will be a "social explosion in the coming months."
Experts say Valls, who did not have to call the confidence vote, wants to wrest back control of the political agenda after a horrendous few weeks for Hollande.
On the economic front, the president has been battered by disastrous data showing unemployment at record highs and zero growth. In addition, the eurozone's second-biggest economy has admitted it will be unable to get its ballooning budget deficit below the EU ceiling until 2017 -- two years later than promised.
Valls defiantly took aim at Germany, saying "only France can decide what to do" and calling on Berlin to "fully assume its responsibilities" as Paris faces a clash with the European Commission and austerity-minded Berlin over the deficit.
Hollande recently suffered the indignity of having his private life splashed across the front pages after his former partner Valerie Trierweiler spilled the beans over their tempestuous relationship and break-up.
The president's second challenge this week will be when he faces the French and international press on Thursday at a rare news conference during which he will be confronted by questions about France's economic woes but also about Trierweiler's best-selling kiss-and-tell.
by Richard CARTER