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Hundreds of thousands turn out to protest French labour reform

Joseph Bamat, FRANCE 24 | French students protest against the country's proposed labour reforms in Paris on March 9, 2016

Hundreds of thousands rallied across France on Wednesday as students and unions protested against far-reaching labour reforms, testing President François Hollande’s nerve as he tries to lower an unemployment rate that has surpassed 10 percent.

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The interior ministry estimated that 224,000 people had turned out to protest across France. Paris police said between 27,000 and 29,000 protesters took to the streets of the French capital while unions cited by local media put the estimate at between 80,000 and 100,000.

A march that began at 2pm local time (GMT+1) wound its way from Paris’s iconic Place de la République to Place de la Nation in the east of the city. Other rallies are scheduled for the end of the month, with unions saying Wednesday’s protests were just “a warm-up”.

The protests coincided with a national rail strike that delayed some suburban and long-distance trains but local transport networks in Paris were generally unaffected. 

"There is a very festive atmosphere at the anti-labour reform protest this afternoon in Paris,” FRANCE 24’s Joseph Bamat reported from the demonstration. “It is a colourful cross-generational affair, very different from this morning's chaotic and tense march by high-school students. One of the overarching themes at the protest is disappointment and anger at the ruling Socialist government.”

Up to 1,500 young people took part in the morning rally in Paris and several thousand also marched in the southern port of Marseille.

“Stop stamping on our right to a future,” one banner in Marseille read, with much of the anger targeted at Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, who has spearheaded the proposed new labour policies.

Martin, a 17-year-old student from Paris, told FRANCE 24: “Even though we are still in high school we feel this reform will impact us because we are the next generation of workers. It has been created only with profits in mind.”

The bill puts almost all aspects of France’s strictly codified rules on labour relations up for negotiation. Everything from the maximum number of work hours to overtime pay to holidays would be open to scrutiny, but the main focus is on plans to limit the cost of laying off workers.

The government and business leaders say the reforms will encourage companies to give more workers permanent contracts rather than temporary ones, but unions and some on the left of the Socialist Party disagree and instead see a threat to job security.

The proposal technically maintains the 35-hour workweek but allows workers to negotiate longer working schdules, up to 46 hours per week for 16 weeks. In "exceptional circumstances", employees could work up to 60 hours a week.

To allow companies to deal with busy periods, one measure would allow employees to work more than 35 hours without being paid overtime in exchange for more days off. Other measures would relax the rules on layoffs and working from home and at night.

French businesses who favour labour reforms

Hollande will likely keep a close eye on the number of students in the streets, keen to avoid a repeat of the massive student protests 10 years ago that forced then president Jacques Chirac to withdraw his own set of proposed labour reforms.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has already postponed the presentation of the reforms to the cabinet by two weeks in a sign that the government might seek to make changes to the most unpopular sections of the bill.

The government is still holding talks with unions and hopes to convince moderate ones such as the CFDT, France’s second-biggest, to approve the measures, preventing the creation of a unified front against the plan.

The labour reforms come against a backdrop of sluggish economic growth that has remained below 1.5 percent, the level many consider necessary to bring down unemployment.


(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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