PARIS (Reuters) - French lawmakers voted on Tuesday for a 50 billion euro ($69 billion) savings plan meant to let the euro zone’s second-largest economy meet deficit-reduction targets, but a high abstention rate betrayed dissent within the Socialist majority.
The 2015-2017 “Stability Program” passed by 265 votes to 232 in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. The program can now be submitted for approval to the European Commission, which has already granted France two extra years to bring its deficit below EU-mandated limits.
“It’s a decisive vote that deeply emphasizes the advancement of our country,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament before the vote.
Sixty-seven lawmakers declined to vote, including 41 Socialists, a high rate pointing to resistance ahead as Valls tries to push through reform to revive the economy and spur growth while also meeting deficit-cutting goals.
The abstentions from Socialists came even after Valls made last-minute concessions to appease concerns that the plan’s welfare spending freeze would hurt the country’s poorest.
While the Greens party and the left-wing Front de Gauche voted in the majority against the plan, the centrist UDI party mostly abstained. A few members of the opposition UMP party, which overwhelmingly voted against the plan, also abstained.
“It’s a real failure, a real fissure in the majority,” said Christian Jacob, leader of the UMP deputies.
Besides clamping down on public spending, the savings plan freezes pensions and welfare benefits for a year and keeps most civil service pay frozen until 2017.
But economists are skeptical as to whether the plan will allow the Socialist government to meet its goal of lowering its public deficit to 3 percent of output by the end of 2015, and there is internal Socialist opposition to any austerity drive.
Voters have sent the approval ratings of President Francois Hollande to record lows given France’s sluggish economic growth and rising joblessness that he has been unable to stem.
On Monday, Valls ceded to pressure from rebellious rank and file lawmakers within his majority to exempt low-income pensioners from the welfare spending freeze.
Valls, who took office last month in a government shakeup, proposed to exclude benefits for the poor and pensioners earning less than 1,200 euros per month from the one-year freeze.
He also said the subsistence wage for the long-term unemployed would start to rise in September by 10 percent over five years, and the minimum wage would increase starting in 2015.
Valls pledged to raise benefits for single parents and said fiscal measures geared to strengthen purchasing power would be announced this year.
Valls’ concessions point to the difficulty of selling the painful savings measures to the electorate, which has indicated it will push back against attempts to whittle away at France’s cherished welfare system. One union has already vowed a one-day strike next month to protest the civil servant wage freeze.
On Tuesday, official data showed that consumer confidence dropped in April below economist estimates due to households’ growing dismay over joblessness and deteriorating finances.
The government hopes to tackle unemployment with a plan to phase out 30 billion euros ($41.5 billion) in payroll tax on companies over the next three years in exchange for committing to hiring targets.
Editing by Mark Heinrich