Analysis: France

French government survives confidence vote despite growing opposition on Socialist left

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls  at the Assemblée nationale on Tuesday
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls at the Assemblée nationale on Tuesday Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

France’s Socialist government survived a risky confidence vote on Tuesday but with a reduced majority compared to six months ago … bad news for an embattled government but not as bad as it could have been.

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With his opinion poll ratings declining towards President François Hollande’s disastrous level, Prime Minister Manuel Valls took a gamble in going to parliament for a vote of confidence, following his latest cabinet reshuffle.

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He didn’t have to do it.

The confidence vote was a challenge to the party’s left – did they dare break ranks after three ministers were squeezed out for criticising the government’s economic policy?

Would the frondeurs (rebels) vote no confidence in Valls’s government, forcing him to resign and leaving Hollande with three choices – reappoint him and risk a new vote of no confidence, appoint a new prime minister, who could face the same challenge, or dissolve parliament and call a general election?

With massive disappointment in the government on the part of its traditional voters and virulent opposition on the right, the Socialists would almost certainly lose an election and the far-right Front National would probably make significant gains.

In the end they didn’t, although the hard-left Left Front did join the mainstream right UMP and the centre-right UDI in doing so.

But 31 Socialist MPs abstained, as did members of the Green party, EELV, which quit the government earlier this year, meaning that, for the first time since 1962, a government does not have an absolute majority in the lower house, the Assemblée Nationale.

So Valls’s government has survived but it is weakened yet again, following a disastrous start to the latest parliamentary session.

In less than a month three left-wing ministers have been effectively fired, a newly appointed minister, Thomas Thévenoud, had to go after it was revealed that he hadn’t even bothered to file a tax declaration let alone pay his taxes, and Hollande’s ex, Valérie Trierwiler has published a kiss-and-tell memoir that has not done much for the president’s standing in the public’s eyes.

The number of Socialist abstainers is three times more than in April’s confidence vote.

But Valls can console himself with the thought that it is 10 fewer than when Hollande’s Responsibility Pact was put to the vote and nowhere near the 100 who signed a letter criticising a turn to austerity that he claims the government never made.

Valls’s speech is being hailed as a bid to win back the left, although it could hardly be described as Leninist.

He has promised a temporary rise of 40 euros a month for the lowest pensions and tax cuts for six million low-income families and, in a rhetorical reversal of August’s declaration of love to bosses’ union Medef, he told its leader, Pierre Gattaz, off for demanding that the French spend more time at work.

He also called for more flexibility from Brussels and Berlin over economic policy, implying that, if there’s austerity, it’s not the French government’s fault.

So the government has dodged a bullet that was never really fired but that certainly doesn’t mean that its troubles are over.
 

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