Clashes across France as students, workers protest labour reforms
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Clashes broke out on the streets of France on Thursday during fresh demonstrations over labour reforms as workers and students protested against planned changes to labour legislation.
Striking rail workers disrupted services across France in protest at the proposed reforms while students forced the closure of some 200 schools.
Riot police used tear gas against stone-throwing demonstrators in the western cities of Nantes and Rennes, while around 30 youths were arrested after clashes in Paris, Toulouse and elsewhere.
The travel chaos resulted in more than 400 kilometres of tailbacks on motorways around the capital.
The Eiffel Tower was closed all day. The company operating the monument said in a statement that there were not enough staff to open the tower with "sufficient security and reception conditions".
'We want better'
According to unions, around 1.2 million people turned out to protest across the country, more than double the number who protested on the last strike day on March 9. They claimed 160,000 people protested in Paris.
Police gave lower figures, saying 390,000 people joined Thursday’s protests across France including 28,000 in Paris.
Police said around 10 people had been arrested in the capital, where demonstrators marched under banners reading, "We want better" and "A giant leap forward to the 19th century".
The Socialist government is desperate to push through reforms to France's controversial labour laws, billed as a last-gasp attempt to boost the flailing economy before next year's presidential election.
But protests by unions and students turned violent last week also, and demonstrators had vowed an even bigger turnout on Thursday.
They are angry over plans to make it easier for struggling companies to fire workers, even though the reforms have already been diluted once in a bid to placate employers.
Hollande's government was still reeling from his decision Wednesday to abandon controversial constitutional changes that would have allowed dual nationals convicted of terrorism to be stripped of their French citizenship.
The measure had been derided as ineffective and divisive, including by left-wing rebels within the Socialist party – many of whom also oppose the labour reforms.
Unemployment still rising
Already the least popular president in France's modern history, François Hollande is seeing his numbers continue to fall, with another poll on Wednesday showing he would not even make it to a second-round run-off in a presidential election.
Hollande, 61, has vowed not to run again if he cannot cut the country's stubbornly high unemployment figures – long hovering at around 10 percent – and he hoped the labour reforms would encourage firms to hire more staff.
But pressure from the street and parliament's back benches caused the government to water down the proposals so that they apply only to large firms.
Some reform-minded unions have given their support to the changes, but last week's demonstrations saw cars burned in Paris and more than 30 people arrested as protesters clashed with police, who responded with tear gas.
A recent opinion poll found that 58 percent of the French public still opposed the measures.
Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri said this week that she understood why "such a profoundly reformist text has raised questions and requires debate", adding: "It is not a blank cheque for companies".
Bosses are also unhappy, particularly over the removal of a cap on compensation paid for unfair dismissal, and the scrapping of plans that would have allowed small- and medium-sized companies to unilaterally introduce flexible working hours.
Parliament is set to vote on the reforms in late April or early May.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)