The French government faces a potentially explosive confidence vote in parliament on Thursday night after using emergency powers to push through an emblematic economic reform bill aimed at liberalising markets.
If the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, loses Thursday's vote, President François Hollande would be obliged to call an early parliamentary – but not presidential – election. Given the unpopularity of the left in opinion polls, such an election would almost certainly produce a breakthrough for the right and the far right.
For that reason, the government is confident of winning the vote – even though today’s events suggest that it no longer has a reliable majority in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
A revolt by around 30 left-wing Socialist deputies threatened to defeat the first reading of an economic reform bill which crystallises the more market-friendly approach adopted by President Hollande a year ago.
The bill attempts to reduce regulation and privileged positions – and therefore create jobs – in a variety of trades and professions ranging from driving schools to law offices.
The draft law would also allow large shops to open on Sundays and to midnight on weekdays in tourist areas of big cities and in some shopping malls.
The centre-right opposition opposes the law on the grounds that it does not go far enough, even though it goes beyond anything attempted by President Nicolas Sarkozy during his five years in office. When Mr Valls realised this afternoon that he was likely to lose the first reading of the bill, an emergency cabinet meeting pushed it through by edict under the little-used clause 49-3 of the French constitution.
Mr Valls said opposition to the law – uniting the centre-right and the Left, Greens and hard left – was a classic case of “the difficulty of reforming France”. Centre-right and far right politicians said the recourse to clause 49-3 for the first time in a decade proved that the government could no longer govern.
Former President Sarkozy tweeted: “The truth is out. The government no longer has a majority.”