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French MPs to vote on controversial economic reform law

Alain Jocard, AFP I French Economy and Industry Minister Emmanuel Macron (L) speaks with Prime Minister Manuel Valls as they attend a working session on the Macron law at the French National Assembly in Paris on February 14, 2015

French MPs are set to vote Tuesday on a controversial new economic reform package that would allow more shops to stay open on Sunday, develop bus transportation and increase competition in sectors like law.

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The package, named after the youthful and energetic economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who says he has received death threats over the reforms, hopes to boost “growth, employment and purchasing power”.

The 37-year-old argues the reforms are the only way to free up the eurozone's second-largest economy but he has faced resistance and strikes, even from white-collared workers such as notaries, who oppose changes to their fee structure.

The law is "important for our economy, which bolsters jobs and at the same time protects them," said Prime Minister Manuel Valls ahead of the vote, as France battles against sky-high unemployment.

A change in France’s laid-back, sacred Sundays is one of the primary parts of the reform, extending the number of Sundays shops are allowed to open from a maximum of five per year to 12.

In certain areas classed as "international tourist zones" -- 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 these zones, which will also 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 9.00pm and midnight will receive double pay and their trip home and any childcare costs will be paid by their employer.

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 Prime Minister Manuel Valls in a recent interview.

One Chinese shopper in Paris's world-famous Galeries Lafayette department store told AFP that shops should be open round the clock "particularly for a tourist town" and for "the big brands and stores".

An American consumer said he wished France was more like the United States.

"I understand why Sunday is so sacred in France and all that but I think we're at a crossroads now where people need to shop and people are busy and Sunday's a great day," he said.

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

Lawyers on the streets

Another contested reform is the opening up of white-collared professions such as notarial lawyers, who have traditionally received a fixed fee for their services regardless of the size of the job.

Macron has suggested freeing up the sector to allow competition in transactions such as house-buying.

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

Such passions have been aroused by the debate that Macron even said he had received death threats over the proposed reforms.

President François 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 but most economists believe a growth rate of around 1.5 percent is required to create jobs.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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