PARIS (AFP) - France's Socialist government is to face a no-confidence vote on Thursday after it bypassed parliament and rammed through a labour reform Bill that has sparked two months of massive street protests.
The team of embattled President Francois Hollande resorted to the controversial manoeuvre on Tuesday in the face of fierce opposition from within his own party that doomed the Bill in parliament.
The reform, which makes it easier for employers to hire and fire workers, is likely the last major piece of legislation for Hollande, the least popular leader in modern French history who faces a re-election bid next year.
The tactic to legislate by decree has been used only once before under Hollande - to force through another controversial economic reform governing trading hours and the deregulation of some sectors.
"Pursuing the debate in parliament would pose the risk of... abandoning the compromise that we have built," Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament as he formally announced the move.
He said the government wanted to avoid "a disheartening spectacle of division and political posturing because of an obstructionist minority".
Outside parliament, hundreds of people had gathered to protest the move, chanting "True democracy is here" and calling for Hollande's resignation.
Pressure from the street - as well as parliament's back benches - caused the government to water down the proposals, which only angered bosses while failing to assuage critics.
Bosses were notably unhappy with the withdrawal of a cap on the amount companies must pay for unfair dismissal, as well as the scrapping of a measure that would have allowed small- and medium-sized companies to unilaterally introduce flexible working hours.
Two right-wing opposition parties filed a no-confidence motion to be debated in the 575-seat parliament on Thursday, and between them they have 226 of the 288 votes that would be needed to topple the government.
They have asked left-wing critics of the labour reform to back them - something the minister for parliamentary relations, Jean-Marie Le Guen, said was "inconceivable".
Meanwhile, the leader of around 30 dissenters among the ruling Socialists, Christian Paul, said he hoped to join forces with green MPs to muster the 58 deputies needed to introduce a separate no-confidence motion "of the left".
The government says the new labour reform will help cut stubbornly high unemployment of around 10 per cent - a pledge on which Hollande has staked his presidency.
The reforms would remove some of the obstacles to laying off workers, but its detractors fear it will erode the cast-iron job security enjoyed by French workers who are on full-time contracts.
Student organisations believe it will fail to create secure jobs for young people. Joblessness is nearer to 25 per cent among the young, with many stuck in an endless cycle of short-term contracts and internships.
Whatever happens Thursday, the government's use of the heavy-handed constitutional manoeuvre to ram through the labour law will likely further lower Hollande's standing among left-wing voters.
The 61-year-old Hollande is facing a re-election bid next April with the lowest poll numbers of any recent president. His approval rating currently stands at 13 per cent.
A new round of protests is set for Thursday to coincide with the no-confidence debate.
Street protests against the labour reform kicked off on March 9, culminating in massive demonstrations on March 31 that brought 390,000 people onto the streets, according to an official count, while organisers put the number at 1.2 million.
The protests spawned a new youth-led movement called "Nuit Debout" (Up All Night), which has seen advocates of a broad spectrum of causes gather in city squares at night to demand change.
Up All Night organisers said in a statement that Tuesday's manoeuvre was "an insult to the people of this country" and the reform was an "unprecedented setback for workers' rights in France, a return to the 19th century."