Embattled French government faces key confidence vote

Update: September, 16/2014 - 11:00

PARIS — France's under-fire government faces a crucial parliamentary confidence vote on Tuesday as the country battles a political and economic crisis and President Francois Hollande's popularity stagnates at record lows.

In what promises to be a gruelling week for the Socialist leader, who has the trust of only 13 per cent of the French according to the latest Ipsos poll, he will also face a grilling from reporters at a rare news conference on Thursday.

Experts say the government is unlikely to lose the confidence vote, which would precipitate fresh elections, but it will almost certainly deepen splits within Hollande's ruling Socialist Party.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls will outline the government's work programme and submit it to a vote, just weeks after former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg stepped out of line and publicly criticised the direction his country was taking, sparking an emergency cabinet reshuffle.

Valls has urged party unity, particularly in the face of the threat posed by the far-right National Front, which made huge strides in recent local elections and which he has warned is "at the gates of power". "This is not the moment to call into question the legitimacy of the president, elected by the French for five years. I do not think this is the moment to call our institutions into question," Valls told parliament last week.

A left-wing rump of the ruling Socialists – estimated at around 40-strong – has threatened to abstain in Tuesday's vote in protest at what they see as the government's pro-business lurch to the right.

They have voiced reservations about Hollande and Valls' Responsibility Pact, a package of tax breaks for companies over three years financed by 50 billion euros (US$66 billion) in public spending cuts, in return for a pledge by firms to create jobs.

But political scientist Philippe Braud said he thought the vote was still likely to pass "because the fear of catastrophe is still the best source of unity". Hollande's second challenge of the week will be his Thursday encounter with the French and international press at a news conference.

The president will face questions not only about France's zero growth and record high unemployment, but also his personal difficulties following his former partner's portrait of him in her memoir as a power-hungry and cold man who secretly despises the poor. — AFP