French prime minister Manuel Valls has launched a strong appeal to the ruling Socialist party to rally behind President François Hollande in the face of an angry leftwing revolt against the government’s pro-business reforms.
“It is our duty to be at his side,” Mr Valls insisted in a passionate speech at the end of a tumultuous party summer conference in the Atlantic port of La Rochelle,
With applause and cheers exceeding boos among the hundreds of party faithful gathered to hear him, Mr Valls defended the government’s promise of €40bn in tax cuts for business, €50bn in spending cuts and other supply-side reforms aimed at restarting stalled growth and tackling rising unemployment.
“The left must do what is needed to restore the economy. This policy is necessary to restore France,” he roared.
But he extended an olive branch to the left, insisting to prolonged applause that the government would not reverse the statutory 35-hour working week that he has attacked in the past and which business leaders want dismantled. In an echo of his much criticised declaration to company bosses last week that he “loved business”, he said he “loved socialists”.
He rejected austerity and called on the EU to adopt pro-growth policies, said Germany should boost demand and urged the European Central Bank to go further in supporting growth.
The speech followed the abrupt ousting from the government last week of Arnaud Montebourg, the outspoken economy minister, and two other leftwing dissidents as Mr Hollande moved to regroup his cabinet firmly behind his new reform policy.
The government reshuffle caused uproar in the Socialist party, with a group of rebels in the parliamentary party vowing to fight against what they see as a Blairite betrayal of core socialist values.
Mr Valls, long an outspoken champion of market reforms who once said the party should drop the word socialist from its name, on Friday announced new tax and other incentives for investors to boost the slumping construction sector and signalled other reforms, such as the planned break-up of professional monopolies and extended Sunday opening for retailers, would be pushed through by decree.
The bitter internal policy struggle dominated the weekend conference.
A packed fringe meeting held by the rebels on Saturday morning exploded into cheers and chants of “vive la gauche” (long live the left) when Christiane Taubira, the justice minister and one of the few remaining confirmed leftwingers in the cabinet, entered the hall and spent a few minutes listening to denunciations of Mr Valls’s stance from the platform.
She left without addressing the crowd and the prime minister later shrugged off her appearance. But it was provocative snub to Mr Valls and a clear signal of the extent of disquiet his aggressive policy position has unleashed within the party.
“Social liberalism is the ‘useful idiot’ of the right,” declared Jean-Marc Germain, one of the rebel leaders, to roars of acclaim.
Mr Montebourg avoided the rebel meeting, appearing instead to a mix of cheers and some boos at a similarly packed session of the main conference on a platform with Michel Sapin, the finance minister.
He repeated his attack on EU austerity policies and the lack of action from the ECB, which he said were responsible for Europe’s failure to recover growth.
In a dig at Mr Hollande and Mr Valls, he said: “(Ministers) don’t always want to shut up and sometimes they are dismissed even when they are sometimes right.”
The party split is set to continue, weakening Mr Hollande’s already feeble authority. But Mr Montebourg’s calibrated speech signalled that the party left, for all its genuine anger, is not yet ready to pull the rug from under the government by denying Mr Valls a parliamentary vote of confidence, or by voting against the 2015 budget due later in September.
“We don’t want the fall of the government,” Christian Paul, another leading parliamentary “rebel” told the Financial Times after the group’s noisy meeting.
“Nobody doubts the seriousness of the economic crisis. We are open to compromise.”
He said the rebels were not hostile to a tilt to supply-side policies, but it should not be an exclusively supply-side policy and it should not be aimed just at business.
“If the government would discuss this with us, we wouldn’t be having this French psychodrama,” he added.
Alain Madec, a student and member of the young socialist group who joined the rebel meeting, echoed the sentiment, saying many had been shocked last week by the ejection from the government of the dissidents. “We got the feeling that the government was left without a voice from the left.”
His friend Alexis Dousselain, a civil servant, said: “It’s not broken yet. The problem is François Hollande is doing too much for business and not enough for households.”
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