PARIS — France's prime minister defended his plan of economic reforms ahead of a vote of confidence Tuesday that will determine whether his government can push through critical spending and tax cuts — or even survive.
The result of the vote is uncertain, as Manuel Valls faces a split in his Socialist Party, where some argue he has abandoned his leftist ideals in favor of big business.
In a speech before the vote, he sought to woo those dissidents, arguing his plan did not amount to financial austerity, as many claim. He embraced preserving the country's welfare state, even if adjustments, he said, 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 whose vote — or decision to abstain — could be critical to the size of the majority given to Valls and his capacity to carry out reforms.
The Socialists have 289 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house. Some Socialists may vote against or abstain, but Valls is expected to get some support from allies in other parties.
The vote comes amid a series of political disasters for Socialist President Francois 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 fifth-largest economic power — above create the jobs that Hollande promised when he came to power in 2012.
The jobless rate has been over 10 percent for five years, the economy is not growing and public finances are in bad shape. The budget deficit is 4.4 percent of GDP, 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. 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 the promise for cuts, Valls argued the reforms did not 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.
Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.