Valls is increasingly concerned that images of striking oil refinery workers around burning tyres, rail disruptions and petrol panic-buying have tarnished France’s image abroad, put visitors off coming to the showpiece Euro 2016 football tournament and threatened to damage a fragile tourism industry still reeling from November’s Paris terror attacks.
“No, it is not chaos in France,” Valls insisted to a group of journalists at his official residence, as the government tried to calm a series of strike movements.
The powerful, hardline CGT union is locked in a standoff with the government, demanding a withdrawal of labour reforms designed to loosen France’s rigid workplace regulations and make it easier to hire and fire.
After days of blockades and strikes, fuel depots have been liberated by police and petrol supply almost restored to normal, but strike action on Thursday caused a brief power-cut to about 125,000 homes in Loire-Atlantique as the focus switched to electricity supply.
Fears over travel disruption around the Euro 2016 football tournament next week have eased after airport workers cancelled a walkout in a parallel dispute and a Paris metro strike had little impact. But about half the country’s trains were cancelled on Thursday in a dispute over national rail reorganisation, which the government is seeking to resolve this weekend.
Valls said visitors would be able to come to France by plane, car and – he hoped – trains with no disruption, and vowed that security would be extremely tight to counter the threat of terrorism.
But he said he would not give in to strikes. “I will change nothing on the labour law, even if the strike continues,” Valls said.
Valls said there could be improvements around the edges of the labour law but he would not budge on the reform itself or its contested article 2, which gives companies the power to opt out of national obligations on labour protections.
Valls said: “At the end of the day, there is the question of how we reform in this country. Can a minority organisation just block a country and force the failure of a reform? What’s at stake is not just me, or François Hollande’s presidency, it goes further than that. If we back down, if we withdraw the text, then tomorrow reform in this country will either be blockaded or passed through very brutally by force.”
Valls said he intended to prove wrong the old saying that France was impossible to reform. “Compromise is the most difficult thing in French society,” he said. “This is a people that likes revolution, radicalism, confrontation – and at the same time you have to create the conditions of compromise. That’s the most difficult thing. But you have to try, and that is why the labour law debate is so important.”
He warned: “We’ve got the French people too used to the feeling that reform is impossible and that it’s enough to contest it in the street for reform not to happen. But reform is possible. It’s a question of political will and a state of mind.”
Valls has styled himself as a reform-minded social democrat but his pro-business, unorthodox socialist politics – which have seen him likened to Tony Blair – have won him plenty of enemies inside the left of his party. For years, he has been an uncompromising champion of market-oriented reforms and once said his party should drop the word Socialist from its name.
Valls’ stance and the perceived zig-zagging of Hollande, who before his election promised that his only adversary was the world of finance and then shifted to a pro-business stance, have created cracks within the Socialist party. A rebellion by a number of Socialist MPs meant the labour reforms had to be pushed through by decree – which increased public scepticism.
Valls defended his government’s pro-business turn of the past two years and its €40bn (£30bn) tax cuts for businesses.
He avoided using Hollande’s new mantra “things are getting better”, which the president hopes can give him a chance at running for re-election next year despite being the least popular president in modern history.
But Valls did point to a drop in France’s stubborn mass unemployment figures for two months in a row, and an upturn in growth and consumer confidence, saying it might be possible to win back confidence in time for the presidential race. He had warned in parliament earlier this week that the strikes risked “wasting” signs of slight economic recovery.
Valls spoke as his own popularity ratings plunged to their lowest ever level. A poll in Le Figaro magazine found that he had fallen from 46% approval ratings to 18% in just over two years. Valls brushed the figures aside, saying he did not care about being popular at a time of such change.
He said: “I’m convinced by what I’m doing. Contrary to other reforms in our country, we’re not acting with brutality. We’re not taking rights from workers.
“What’s all this about we can’t reform this country? It is possible to reform France, and to do it while preserving our social model [of social security and welfare protections] at the same time – even if we need to reform the social model as well.”
The labour reforms would become law by mid-July, he said. “If this law is adopted people will say, ‘He held out’. And in this country, you have to hold out.”
He accepted that the government had made mistakes in drawing up the reforms and had not sufficiently explained itself to the French people.
Moreover, the government should have been more open about declaring its shift towards pro-business economic reforms, said Valls. “Yes, we’ve changed, yes this is our politics. What we have to do is explain and accept our choices, not apologise the whole time. We’re putting in place a politics of a modern left.”
Responding to the growing opposition from within the left, Valls said: “There are always those in France that accuse you of betrayal. It’s an old debate – always those who govern are accused of betraying the ideal … Now it’s time for things to change and that’s why this law is symbolically so important.”
He said the problems on the left had come about in part because the Socialist party did not use the last 10 years to prepare enough for being in power. “It stayed in what was often a vision of the past, not modernised enough.”
Asked about Emmanuel Macron, the economy minister and rising star who has founded his own political movement and could be seen as a presidential challenger to Hollande, Valls insisted the government was united. “There’s often a moment of aspiration for change, renewal, another style and all the better – Emmanuel Macron is a member of my government, I’m not going to complain. Is his line different to mine? No.”
Author: Angelique Chrisafis