Prime Minister Manuel Valls will unveil his economic reform plan to France’s National Assembly on Tuesday, a few weeks after President Francois Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party (PS) took a beating in local elections. The much debated program aims to save France €50 billion ($69 billion) over the next three years, and will target the nation’s entrenched welfare state by cutting health care spending and freezing current pension and welfare payments, and civil servants’ salaries.
Brussels will be watching Tuesday’s vote closely — France has already failed to meet its deficit reduction pledges to the E.U. twice; it will likely miss its 2015 target. Yet on the eve of the vote grumbling within the Socialist Party, notably over proposed welfare freezes, threatens to if not torpedo, at least water down, the economic plan.
PS lawmaker Christian Paul spoke out shortly after Valls first announced the spending cuts in early April, noting, “We weren’t elected in 2012 to impoverish millions of French people.” Paul is one of dozens of Socialist MPs, including Laurence Dumont and Jean-Marc Germain, who are pledging to abstain from Tuesday’s vote. A petition circulated by anti-austerity activists dubbed “Socialists against austerity” has garnered signatures from party heavyweights like Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, from the PS’ leftist wing. The current fissures between Socialist lawmakers and the Matignon are rare in their depth and rancor, and have prompted the opposition to label the relationship “cohabitation” (a term used when the French president and premier come from opposing parties.)
True, the non-binding vote will not make-or-break Valls’ program, which will be sent before the European Commission regardless of the National Assembly’s endorsement or rejection. And the in-party rebellion could fizzle out before the vote. Both Hollande and Valls are working overtime to placate troubled lawmakers; Valls issued a public letter on Monday to the National Assembly, promising concessions that would soften the impact of spending cuts. Fear of provoking a political crisis and dampening the PS’ political future — i.e., by broadcasting party divisions in the lead up to critical European parliamentary elections — may also drive resistant MPs to toe the line.
But a wide-scale abstention would be troubling for Valls, who is still something of an outsider vying for influence within the fractious Socialist party, where many resent the prime minister’s outspoken, and rightward-leaning, stances. Hollande too has much to lose. Starting with his credibility in Brussels and Berlin, both of which are gearing up for a fight if Hollande fails to deliver on his pledge to reduce France’s budget deficit. At home, despite widespread hostility among voters and lawmakers alike, the president is counting on his reform package to turn around France’s economy — in fact, he has staked his 2017 bid on it — and boost his catastrophic approval ratings. A tall order, we say.