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French gov't survives confidence vote triggered by rebels

PARIS — France's prime minister won a confidence vote Thursday called after rebels in his Socialist Party teamed up with conservatives to demand he scrap pro-business measures he rammed through parliament without a vote.

A total of 234 lawmakers voted for the censure motion that triggered a political crisis and forced Prime Minister Manuel Valls to defend his policies. The count was far below the 289 needed for the motion to pass and bring down the government.

The debate in France's lower house of parliament ahead of the vote was rife with political tension, as conservative opposition's leader Christian Jacob attacked the government. "We're asking the Assembly to censure you because your economic and social policies are a total failure," Jacob said, directly addressing Valls.

The plan to free up labor rules and regulations, authored by Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, has improbably put some Socialist lawmakers in the same camp as their most conservative counterparts.

"You don't play dice with such an important bill for our country," the prime minister said in a speech defending his policies ahead of the vote— and his use of special powers to push through the measure.

"You don't take risks in the face of the irresponsibility and the immaturity of some," he said, referring to the rebel Socialists.

The bill includes a patchwork of measures including allowing more stores to open on Sundays and evenings, making it easier for employers to lay off workers and fostering greater competition in regulated professions such as auctioneers and notaries.

Valls, who will speak to Parliament later Thursday, this week forced through the bill without a vote by invoking rarely used special powers. That drew a censure motion by the conservative opposition, and suddenly an obscure loophole in the French constitution also became a cause celebre for Socialist renegades who contested Macron's bill.

France's Socialist party is fractured between a pro-business faction —including Valls and Macron — and others who want to protect French industry and the country's considerable social and health benefits.

The battle in Parliament comes as statistics released Thursday show that inflation in France turned negative last month for the first time since October 2009, with prices falling 0.4 percent from a year earlier.

Marc Touati, a French economist and proponent of "shock therapy" for his country, said it was disturbing that the government could not even accomplish what he described as "a mini-reform."

"It cannot pass through the normal way, which shows that France, unfortunately, is un-reformable. That is very worrying and sends a very bad signal to the world" at a time when France's growth forecast is below 1 percent for 2015.

"When you make a comparison to the sacrifices made by the Spanish, Germans, Italians, Portuguese and Irish ... I'm worried about France," he said.

French President Francois Hollande has pointed to the measure as an important demonstration of goodwill toward EU authorities, who allowed France yet again to put off reducing its deficit. "We have no time to lose," he said Thursday.

Facing a lagging economy and an unemployment rate above 10 percent, Hollande changed course on his leftwing program in January 2014 when he announced a plan to lower taxes and spur employment. He promised to ease payroll taxes by up to 40 billion euros ($50 billion) by 2017 if businesses would hire, although the jobless rate has hardly budged. At the same time, France abandoned its pledge to bring its deficit below 3 percent in 2015, as required by EU rules.

Macron, a former investment banker, became economy minister in August. In an interview with The Associated Press last month, he said he wanted to make France "a haven for entrepreneurs."

A group of Socialists revolted against that plan, regularly abstaining when economic measures came up for a vote. This week, about two dozen of them were ready to vote against Macron's bill, infuriated especially by the plan to make it easier for shops to open on Sundays.

Christian Paul, a leader of the Socialist mavericks, insisted they wouldn't allow Valls' government to fall. But he strongly criticized the lack of guarantees for Sunday workers and said jobs would be destroyed in small shops unable to compete with malls and chain stores.