French prime minister wins confidence vote, allows him to try to cure stagnant economy

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PARIS — French Prime Minister Manuel Valls won a vote of confidence on Tuesday in a tense ballot, allowing him to push through economic reforms that have divided his Socialist Party.

The government's once comfortable margin was diluted in the 269-244 vote, with 53 abstentions. The result denies the government its absolute majority, but still allows Valls to carry out reforms aimed at lifting France out of its economic crisis.

President Francois Hollande's popularity has plunged over failure to cure the nation's high unemployment rate, zero growth and oversized deficit. He had promised to create jobs for the French when he took office in 2012 after defeating the conservative incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy.

In a speech laying out government policy before the vote, Valls addressed Socialist dissenters who feel he has abandoned his leftist ideals in favor of big business and is resorting to financial austerity measures.

Of the 53 abstentions, 31 were Socialists. The party holds 289 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house.

Valls was backed by 306 lawmakers in an April vote of confidence when he took office.

"There is not only a majority, there is no alternative majority," Valls said later in a TV interview, in reference to rival conservatives and other opposition parties.

He told lawmakers after the vote that the government was in place for the duration of its term, until 2017.

"This is what the French expect, that we roll up our sleeves and be up to the challenges."

In his pre-vote speech, the prime minister embraced preserving the country's welfare state, even if adjustments are needed.

"To reform is not to break, to reform is not to regress ... To reform is to affirm our priorities, while refusing austerity," Valls said.

Valls called for the confidence vote after expelling two dissident ministers from the Cabinet this summer, with another leaving voluntarily. They were the most visible among a group of Socialists critical of government policy. Their decision to abstain deprived Valls of an absolute majority.

The vote came amid a series of political disasters for Hollande, whose popularity rating was confirmed this week at 13 percent, an all-time low for a French president. Hollande was lately bashed in a book by his ex-companion and a newly-appointed Socialist minister lasted but nine days on the job after revelations he hadn't been paying taxes and other bills on time.

"Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, your days are numbered," said the chief of the conservative opposition, Christian Jacob, in response to Valls' speech. "Without a clear majority and with a discredited president," he said, Valls doesn't have the means to reform.

Valls is hoping his reforms will help cure a litany of ills afflicting the world's No. 5 economic power.

The jobless rate has been more than 10 percent for five years, the economy isn't growing and public finances are in bad shape. The budget deficit is 4.4 percent of gross domestic product, far above the 3 percent demanded by the European Union.

The reforms include 50 billion euros ($65 billion) in cuts to government spending by 2017 — 21 billion euros in 2015. It also proposes reducing the tax burden on employers in hopes to spur hiring. The reforms must be approved in parliament in the fall.

Despite promised spending cuts, Valls maintained his reforms don't amount to austerity.

He said the government would not change the 35-hour work week, retirement at 60 for some employees and other benefits.

"The only question that should concern us is to carry out indispensable reforms with courage, but without putting into question our social model ... which is even part of our identity," the prime minister said.

Once one of France's most popular politicians, Valls is also losing ground in polls since his appointment five months ago. His popularity rating fell to 30 percent in the latest poll by the Ipsos firm, published this week.

Referring to the disunity within his party, Valls said it's time to move forward.

"We're not going to add political disorder to the economic crisis, social crisis, moral crisis we are in."


Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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