Confidence vote looms after French government forces through reforms

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Paris (AFP) - France's government on Tuesday forced a key package of economic reforms through parliament in a rare move that sparked a confidence motion which could in theory bring it down.

Struggling to win a majority for a set of reforms seen as vital to pep up the sluggish French economy, Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls resorted to a little-used constitutional device to push the bill through parliament without a vote.

The bill is now considered approved unless MPs adopt a motion of no-confidence to bring down the government -- which analysts consider highly unlikely.

The reforms, which include increasing the number of Sundays on which shops can stay open and liberalising certain sectors of the economy, have proved divisive.

A significant rump of leftist rebels from the ruling Socialist Party, who see the reforms as too pro-business, have vowed to vote against the bill or abstain, but they are unlikely to topple the government on the issue.

"I won't take a risk with a bill like this which I consider essential for our economy," Valls told deputies when it became clear the vote was too close to call.

"With 10 percent unemployment, with the economic crisis that we have, we need to use everything we have at our disposal to boost competitiveness and make our firms more competitive internationally," the prime minister said.

The dissidents, he told TF1 television in a primetime interview, had "other objectives than the problems of the French".

Within hours of the bill, the conservative opposition UMP party tabled a vote of no-confidence over the "forced passage" of the bill but political analysts say there was little chance it would pass.

"There's almost no risk" that the government would lose a confidence vote, said Philippe Braud, a political analyst.

"I wouldn't say it's a failure. It's a precautionary measure that shows that the majority is indeed slim," said Braud.

The no-confidence vote is slated to take place on Thursday.

- Tourist shopping -

In rowdy scenes in parliament, the country's energetic, youthful banker-turned-economy minister Emmanuel Macron passionately defended his bill, which he sees as vital to energise the eurozone's second-largest economy.

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 currently to 12.

In certain areas classed as "international tourist zones" -- such as the Champs-Elysees in Paris, the Saint-Germain area and Boulevard Haussmann, home to two of the capital's big department stores -- shops will 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 9:00 pm and midnight will receive double pay and their trip home PAID, and the employer will also cover any childcare costs.

Through 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 opening, describing it as a "backward step for democracy."

- Lawyers in the streets -

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

Among them 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.

The threat of competition 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.

President Francois 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.

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