Vote takes French government to brink

Prime Minister Manuel Valls at conference with labour unions and workers Image copyright Reuters
Image caption As its problems mount, the government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls is running out of options

France's embattled Socialist government is facing a fresh test on Tuesday, with a vote of confidence in parliament. Prime Minister Manuel Valls is due to present his programme to a deeply divided chamber - but will it kill or cure the government?

It looks like a massive gamble. Just weeks after the resignation and reshuffle of the entire cabinet, Mr Valls has decided to take the fight to his opponents, by giving them the chance to vote down his policies.

There are plenty on the left of his party who dislike those policies. Earlier this year, some 40 Socialist party members refrained from approving the government's so-called Responsibility Pact, designed to boost the economy by funnelling tax cuts to businesses.

If a similar number abstain from the vote today, Mr Valls could struggle to make up the numbers he needs for a majority.

If that happens, President Francois Hollande has the option of avoiding fresh elections by simply re-appointing his prime minister.

But it will not solve the government's underlying problems, nor the voters' own dwindling confidence in it.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Francois Hollande's approval ratings are the lowest for a president in recent memory

France's economy remains moribund. Growth is flat-lining, the country has admitted it will not meet its EU budget deficit targets next year, and the number of people claiming unemployment benefit last month rose by almost 1%.

The rescue policies of President Hollande and his "pro-business" prime minister have caused deep rifts in the party, and added a political crisis to the government's existing economic headache.

Rebel threat

The reshuffle last month was designed to rid the cabinet of these splits, but the rebels remain vocal in parliament.

In a bid, perhaps, to remind parliamentarians of the political stakes, Mr Valls has raised the spectre of the National Front, which made big gains in the last local elections here, in March.

But the prime minister has more to fear today from his own party members than from the far right. At the last confidence vote in April, 11 Socialist members abstained.

This time the number is expected to be higher, though most analysts believe the government will manage to get its majority, even if it has to scrape it together.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Valerie Trierweiler's claims about Mr Hollande have further damaged his standing

Fractious though the Socialist rebels are, their abstention from the vote risks forcing elections that their party might lose.

The main opposition party is likewise wary of an election, which might end with them holding the reins under a deeply unpopular president.

Bad headlines

President Hollande now has the confidence of just 13% of voters, according to a recent poll - the lowest for any president in France's Fifth Republic. Less than a quarter thought he was "sincere".

That impression has not been helped by the latest gory twist in the saga of the president's personal life.

Mr Hollande has been battling the fallout from the launch of a new book, written by his former partner Valerie Trierweiler, which accuses him of being cold and callous, and - perhaps most damagingly - of being dismissive of the country's poor.

The Socialist president, Ms Trierweiler says, privately referred to the poor as the "toothless ones" (sans-dents).

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Thomas Thevenoud's 'administration phobia' cost him his job

And it is not just the president who is creating negative headlines for the government.

Nine days into the job of trade minister, Thomas Thevenoud was relieved of his post after not paying his tax - a result, as he put it, of having an "administration phobia".

It was, according to news reports here, the shortest ministerial career in recent history.

Beset with troubles in the economy, the presidential office, and the cabinet, Mr Valls could use a bit of good news in parliament today.

A No vote might not automatically bring down his government, but it would heap humiliation on an already-embattled administration, and with several key pieces of legislation in the pipeline over the next few months - including the budget - it could see France's government grind to a halt.

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