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‘Cold technocracy’: Bereavement law fiasco plunges Macron’s party into turmoil

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has sought to shield Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud (left) from criticism amid bitter infighting within France's ruling party.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has sought to shield Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud (left) from criticism amid bitter infighting within France's ruling party. © Lucas Barioulet, AFP

France’s ruling party is scrambling to fend off accusations of insensitivity and incompetence after its lawmakers voted down a proposed bill extending paid leave from work for parents who have lost a child.

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It’s the kind of PR disaster President Emmanuel Macron’s government, so often accused of technocratic indifference, would readily have done without.

Recognising a “mistake”, lawmakers from Macron’s LREM party on Tuesday began working on draft legislation to extend paid leave for bereaved parents from 5 to 12 days – precisely what they voted down only days earlier after they were instructed to do so by the government.

“When you make such an egregious mistake, first you admit it, then you fix it, after which you go a step further – and quickly,” said LREM lawmaker Olivia Grégoire.

“We’ll make amends,” added the government’s spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye, recognizing a “political misjudgment”.

The stunning about-face followed a chorus of condemnation that rattled the administration, forcing the president to step into the fray.

In a rare rebuke, Macron, himself a frequent target of accusations of callousness, had urged his government at the weekend to “show humanity” on the issue.

‘Shameful’

The plan to extend paid leave in the event of a child’s death was originally put forward by the UDI, a small centrist outfit that is generally supportive of Macron’s government.

The seemingly consensual proposal was backed by all other parties, but its surprise rejection by LREM lawmakers on Thursday resulted in a narrow defeat – and a deluge of criticism from members of the opposition and the public.

“We’re talking about the mother of all tragedies here,” gasped prominent left-winger François Ruffin, accusing the ruling party of “pettiness”, while conservative lawmaker Pierre Cordier spoke of “a shameful” vote.

The suggestion by some LREM lawmakers that workers might instead “donate” their holidays to bereaved colleagues attracted particular scorn.

In further embarrassment for the government, the current and former heads of France’s business confederation, the Medef, said they also supported longer paid leave – undercutting Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud’s initial claim that the proposal would place an unfair financial burden on French firms.

“We are governed by people who know nothing of real life,” commented Yannick Jadot, a leader of the Greens, denouncing “a form of cold technocracy”.

'I say merde!'

Pénicaud and her ministerial colleagues have since been squabbling over who should take the blame for the fiasco, while several of LREM’s typically pliant lawmakers have accused the government of throwing them under the bus.

“We’re caught between two fires,” Aurore Bergé, a party lawmaker and spokesperson, told French daily Le Figaro. “On one side there’s the public, which quite rightly says we messed up; and on the other there’s people in the cabinet who call us idiots. The idiots are the lawmakers who were simply loyal to their government!”

Seeking to quell the unrest, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe acknowledged during a meeting of LREM lawmakers on Tuesday that the government was “partly to blame”. He added: “To those who wish to pin the blame on others, on Muriel [Pénicaud], internally or through the media, I say merde!”

Reflecting on the debacle, French weekly Le Point said the initial blunder “smacked of a mix of incompetence and lack of political savvy”.

With the ruling party now scrambling to present its own bill, Le Point noted that a few amendments to the original text would have sufficed to avert the whole fracas – “but, incredibly, no one in the ruling majority even thought about it!”

If and when the new bill is approved, it will provide one of the most generous parental bereavement pay offers in the world. The UK parliament is expected to vote on similar legislation in the coming weeks.

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