It started with a practical question about a particularly sensitive topic.
It quickly spiralled into a row about the country's core values, which turned so sour for the ruling party that it prompted a rare intervention by President himself.
Here's is why a new bereavement bill caused so much uproar in France and what it means for Emmanuel Macron and his party.
What's the deal?
It all began last week in the French Parliament, when the MPs voted on a bill that would extend the current congé de deuil (bereavement leave) after the death of a child from five to 12 days.
Originally put forward by the small centrist party UDI-Agir, the proposal had achieved support from both sides of the political aisle, a seeming consensus spanning all the way from the far-left party La France Insoumise (LFI) to right wingers in Les Républicains.
But when the time came to vote last Thursday, January 30th, lawmakers from the governing party La République en Marche (LREM) voted against the bill – blocking it by 40 against 38.
François Ruffin, from the leftist party La France Insoumise ('France Unbowed') said the decision to block the bill was the “mother of all tragedies.” Photo: AFP
Why did the LREM lawmakers vote against it?
You might think that allowing parents who had just lost a child a few extra days of work would be fairly uncontroversial, but according to the LREM lawmakers, the text in question would be bad for business.
This argument was exceptionally poorly received.
In what quickly turned into a Twitter indignation storm, lawmakers from both left and right condemned the LREM members who had blocked the bill.
“Shame on them,” tweeted LFI politician Francois Ruffin shortly after the vote, responding to French Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud’s (LREM) claim that the bill in question would “penalise businesses.”
Un député (de droite) propose d'allonger de 5 à 12 jours le congé des parents lorsqu'ils perdent un enfant. Sur le sujet je pensais qu'il n'y aurait pas de FI, pas de LR, de Modem, pas de En Marche. Et que nous dit la ministre? “Ca va pénaliser les entreprises.” La honte sur eux. pic.twitter.com/2ZQAkZpO9H
— François Ruffin (@Francois_Ruffin) January 30, 2020
Critics were particularly upset by the suggestion by some LREM lawmakers that workers might instead “donate” their holidays to bereaved colleagues.
Infuriated critics were further bolstered when Medef, the business union representing employers, undercut the government's bad-for-business argument by publicly backing the bill.
“[Our support] is evident” tweeted Medef President Geoffrey Roux.
— G Roux de Bézieux (@GeoffroyRDB) January 31, 2020
What is happening now?
After the President himself intervened over the weekend, asking his party members to “show humanity,” the LREM lawmakers on Tuesday began drafting the same legislation that they voted down last week.
“We'll make amends,” said government's spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye.
French Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud took a lot of criticism this week after she said the bill would be “bad for business.” Photo: AFP
Why did Macron need to intervene?
Symbolically this argument was highly problematic for the President, who for a long time has struggled to shake off an image of him as 'President of the rich'.
Turning down a bill that would provide an additional seven days of mourning for parents who just lost a child makes it easy for critics to paint the ruling party as pushing a heartless, business-first political line – or a “cold technocracy,” as Green Party leader Yannick Jadot called it.
“We are governed by people who know nothing of real life,” Jadot said.
If and when the new bill is approved, France will have one of the most generous parental bereavement laws in the world, according to France 24.
The UK parliament is expected to vote on similar legislation in the coming weeks.