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French PM survives no-confidence vote amid labour reform protests


Demonstrators march during a protest against labour reforms in Paris (AP)

Demonstrators march during a protest against labour reforms in Paris (AP)

Demonstrators march during a protest against labour reforms in Paris (AP)

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has survived a no-confidence vote prompted by a divisive labour reform as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to protest against the law.

Facing almost daily protests and legislative gridlock, the government decided to use a special measure to push the bill through without a vote in the lower house of parliament.

The conservatives tried to object by setting up a no-confidence vote, but with 246 votes they failed to gather the minimum of 288 needed to bring down the government.

The contested reform - including longer workdays, easier lay-offs and weaker unions - will now be debated in the Senate.

In his speech to lawmakers, Mr Valls said he is proud of the law because it will help social progress and it is an "indispensable reform" in a globalised world.

A rain-drenched march through Paris was largely peaceful but police fired tear gas at some rowdy demonstrators. Similar scenes played out in Marseille on the Mediterranean and Nantes on the Atlantic Coast.

New street protests and strikes called by workers' unions to reject the reform are already scheduled next week.

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The labour reform has torn apart the Socialists and further damaged their weak chances of keeping the presidency and legislative control in next year's elections.

Protesters are also angry about the government's decision to pass the law without a vote, using an article of the French Constitution instead.

"The government must listen. Democracy must prevail, within our movement and at the National Assembly," said Philippe Martinez, secretary-general of the CGT union.

The bill is relatively modest, especially after the government softened it to meet union demands.

It will not abolish the 35-hour work week but will allow companies to negotiate deals for up to 48 hours a week or 12-hour shifts.

It will change rules for lay-offs in companies, to create more flexibility during downturns - under conditions depending on the size of the businesses.

It even adds some new protections - a "right to disconnect" from emails and smartphones negotiated with employers - and a new 461-euro (£363) allowance for young job-seekers.

The head of the opposition conservatives in the lower house said the law does not go far enough to open up the country's economy - Christian Jacob criticised the bill as "empty".

"France is trying to do the bare minimum," said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. But "politically it seems almost impossible to do this without street protests".

Critics see the bill as a symbol of something much bigger, a surrender to a heartless, globalised world, and a fundamental betrayal of hard-fought worker protections and a way of life that France has long prided itself on.

Labour minister Myriam El Khomri acknowledged the government made mistakes in how it handled the reform and how it explained it to voters.

She insisted in an interview published in Directmatin that it will help France better compete in "the world of today".

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