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French govt to pass controversial economic reform bill by decree

French Economy and Industry Minister Emmanuel Macron (L) with Prime Minister Manuel Valls  at the French National Assembly
French Economy and Industry Minister Emmanuel Macron (L) with Prime Minister Manuel Valls at the French National Assembly ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP

France's prime minister on Tuesday decided to push a key package of economic reforms through parliament without a vote, an emergency move that could spark a no-confidence vote against the government.

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"I won't take any risks," Prime Minister Manuel Valls told lawmakers, as the government struggled to win a parliamentary majority over the hotly contested reforms.

The decision means National Assembly members who oppose the bill have 24 hours to organise a no-confidence vote in the government.

The reform package, which includes new rules to broaden trading hours and de-regulate certain sectors, is an effort to boost growth and kick-start France’s stagnant economy.

It is also aimed at persuading the European Commission to give Paris more time to get its public finances into line with EU rules.

Earlier on Tuesday, amid rowdy scenes in the National Assembly, France’s energetic and youthful banker-turned-economy minister Emmanuel Macron passionately defended his bill, as dozens of lawmakers from the ruling Socialists threatened to vote against it or abstain.

A major plank of the reform package is to extend the number of Sundays that shops are allowed to open from a maximum of five per year to 12.

In certain areas classed as "international tourist zones" -- such as in Paris the Champs Elysees, the Saint-Germain area and the Boulevard Haussmann where most of the capital's department stores are based -- shops would be able to open every Sunday.

Shops in such zones, which are also set to be created in the French Riviera cities of Cannes and Nice, will also be able to stay open until midnight seven days a week.

Employees working between 900pm and midnight will receive double pay and their trip home, and the employer will also cover any childcare costs.

With the reforms, Paris is bidding to cement its reputation as the world's number-one tourist destination.

"Do we want millions and millions of tourists -- notably Chinese -- who come to the capital to leave us and go and do their shopping in London on a Sunday?" asked Valls in a recent interview.

But the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is staunchly opposed to extending Sunday openings and has described it as a "backward step for democracy."

Death threats

Macron's reform proposals have triggered such passion that he claims to have received death threats.

Among the reforms are plans to open up white-collar professions such as notarial lawyers, who have traditionally received a fixed fee regardless of the size of the job.

But the threat of competition also sparked the unusual sight of these middle-class workers downing pencils and pounding the streets in protest.

France's economy is desperately in need of a boost. It registered a meagre 0.4 percent growth last year and unemployment has refused to come down from record highs.

Hollande is pinning his hopes on the Macron reforms, plus a package of tax breaks for business in return for job pledges, known as the Responsibility Pact.

He has vowed not to seek re-election in the next presidential vote in 2017 if he fails to reduce unemployment.

Most economists believe a growth rate of around 1.5 percent is required to create jobs.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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