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Candidates spar over labour law in first French left-wing presidential debate


Former French prime minister Manuel Valls on Thursday defended a controversial labour reform passed under his tenure as he squared off against other left-wing presidential hopefuls in a televised debate.


Seven candidates vying for France’s left-wing presidential nomination presented the main points of their campaigns as they faced off in the first of four primary debates.

Former government ministers Arnaud Montebourg and Benoit Hamon said they would repeal the law allowing French companies to fire workers more easily, forcing Valls – the touted frontrunner in the race – into a defensive stand.

“[The law] was not debated by the unions and it was not debated by the parliament, because it was forced through,” Montebourg said, taking aim at Valls for bypassing lawmakers in July. “It’s impossible to pass a law for 29 million workers without consulting with their representatives in the unions or in parliament.”

“Repeal what exactly, the right for workers to negotiate in their companies?” Valls heatedly shot back, insisting that several provisions, including the so-called “right to disconnect”, remained popular measures.

The first round of France’s left-wing primary will be held on January 22, with the two candidates claiming the most votes advancing to a run-off poll on January 29.

The debate also included former education minister Vincent Peillon and three candidates from smaller parties allied to the ruling Socialists in parliament: François de Rugy, Jean-Luc Bennahmias and Sylvia Pinel, who is the only woman in the primary race.

Socialist divisions

Valls also faced criticism for his government’s failed bid in March to introduce an amendment to the constitution that would have allowed authorities to strip dual nationals of their French citizenship in terror cases.

Ex-PM Valls 'had to fear the most' from the debate

The former premier, who stepped down in December to launch his presidential bid, said he regretted “sowing division within the party” over the proposed text. Throughout the debate Valls nevertheless defended his tenure, saying he was “proud” of what he had accomplished alongside President François Hollande.

The Socialist president, whose job approval ratings sank to historic lows last year, announced in December that he would not run for re-election.

Hollande and Valls have shepherded a string of pro-business policies and clamped down on civil liberties in recent years, angering many left-wing voters and even members of their own party.

Attacking Fillon

Despite arguing – sometimes vigorously – the primary rivals unanimously praised Hollande and Valls over their response to a series of terrorist attacks that have struck France in the past two years.

“I salute the government for its reaction, and I salute the French people, who never once expressed a desire for vengeance,” Montebourg said. “The work that has been done is what will allow us to overcome.”

All seven candidates agreed on the need to add more police and specialised judges to fight against terrorist cells in the country, and said they supported raising military and intelligence spending.

The left-wing candidates also took turns attacking conservative presidential nominee François Fillon, arguing that his goal was to dismantle France’s social model, and questioning his overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

François de Rugy said that one of the biggest threats facing France was the “expansionist policy of Vladimir Putin”, warning that both Fillon and far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen “want an alliance with Putin, in particular in Syria to support [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad.”

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