‘France must move forward’: Govt imposes controversial labor reform by decree, despite opposition

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announces the decision to bypass parliament and impose a relaxation of the country's protective labour laws by decree at the National Assembly in Paris, France, May 10, 2016. © Charles Platiau
The French government has used a rarely-invoked article of the constitution to bypass parliament and forcibly implement a labor reform that has provoked months of protests.

“Because the country must move forward, the cabinet has authorized me to act on behalf of the government,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament to a mixture of boos and cheers.

Article 49.3 of the French constitution has been used fewer than 90 times since its inception in 1958, and was previously applied by the current government to push through a controversial economic reform plan last year, as well as on two other occasions.

The only way to void it would be to produce a no-confidence vote in the government in the coming 24 hours. Major right-wing opposition parties have already started proceedings, though the bill is unlikely to gain enough support.

Although watered down after months of bruising negotiations, the proposed reform would make it more practical for employers to prolong the 35-hour working week, cheaper to lay off staff, and easier to overpower unions.

Predictably, it has provoked intractable opposition from the left wing of President Francois Hollande’s and Valls’ own Socialist Party, with observers saying that the rebels left the party, which has a narrow majority, about 30 votes short of the number it needed to pass the bill.

"Pursuing the debate in parliament would pose the risk of abandoning the compromise that we have built," said Valls, who claimed he wanted to avoid "a disheartening spectacle of division and political posturing because of an obstructionist minority."

More than a dozen of the rebels met with Valls in the hours before his speech, but no compromise was struck.

“It’s a heavy-handed way of using the constitution to prevent the nation’s representatives from having their say,” Laurent Baumel, a rebel Socialist lawmaker, told the media outside the deputies’ chamber.

But the government has remained steadfast, with embattled President Hollande staking his re-election campaign on bringing down unemployment below 10 percent, which he says is partly the result of an overly-rigid labor code.

Nuit Debout takes to the streets

Known as the El Khomri law, after the labor minister, the legislation has given birth to an entire protest movement, Nuit Debout, which has been likened to Occupy in the US, but enjoys broader support in France.

Nuit Debout, which is translated as Up All Night, has commenced a protest outside the National Assembly building in Paris which is expected to last through the night, as well as smaller protests elsewhere around the country.

The biggest Nuit Debout demonstrations in March, which were spearheaded by leftist students and unions, gathered over 390,000 people.

If they fail to sway the Socialist government, the El Khomri law will be transferred up to the upper house of parliament, where it can also be passed with the same decree as before, if necessary.