Sun, May 29, 2016 - Page 6 News List

French PM Manuel Valls stakes career on labor rules fight

AFP, PARIS

Engaged in a fierce tug of war with unions and some of his own party over labor reforms, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has staked his political career on staring down the crisis.

Valls finds himself in a devilish position, said Frederic Dabi of polling firm IFOP.

“If he withdraws the law, he will no longer count for anything,” Dabi said.

The alternative is standing his ground and risking that the unions keep up their paralyzing unrest through to June 10, when France is to start hosting the Euro 2016 soccer championships.

“Despite his drop in opinion polls, Valls still has an image of strength, an image of authority — maybe a bit too much,” Dabi said.

Only 26 percent of French voters support the prime minister’s tough line, while 69 percent want the labor reform bill withdrawn “to avoid a blockage of the country.”

Three months of protests against reforms have led to strikes and blockades at fuel depots and refineries, as well as multiple strikes across the transport sector that could seriously affect the smooth running of Euro 2016 at 10 venues around the nation.

“Valls has his back against the wall. If he withdraws the bill, he can’t stay in his job,” said a member of parliament from the ruling Socialist party, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The prime minister has been through a rough few months, becoming a hate figure for some in his party who say the reforms are too liberal and give too many powers to employers over workers.

“How long can he stand firm?” a report on the front page of newspaper Le Figaro asked on Friday.

It followed an eighth day of protest marches in a little more than two months, with between 150,000 and 300,000 people taking to the streets on Thursday. Another protest is scheduled for June 14.

When Valls took over as head of the government in March 2014, the Catalan-born prime minister was known for his stormy character and stern demeanor from his stint as French minister of the interior — not attributes that lend themselves easily to the diplomacy required in the current crisis.

“This country sometimes kills itself with its conservatism, from the impossibility of reform. That’s why we are at a crucial moment,” Valls told parliament on Thursday.

Valls launched an ambitious attempt to win over skeptics in his party and on the streets with amendments that curved some of the bill’s sharper edges, but in the end he had no choice but to force the bill through parliament without a vote.

That brought accusations of being anti-democratic and did nothing to stop the momentum of protests, leading some in the government — including French Minister of Finance Michel Sapin — to start calling for a renegotiation of its most contentious aspects.

“Am I about to withdraw the text? Or rewrite an article that is the very heart of its philosophy?” Valls asked.

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