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Protesters keep up pressure on French government over contested labour law

Joseph Bamat, FRANCE 24 | Protesters march demanding the withdrawal of the labour law during a demonstration against the French government's proposed labour law reforms in Paris on April 9.

At least 120,000 people marched in Paris and across France for a sixth time on Saturday to protest against contested labour reforms in what is a growing challenge to President François Hollande's struggling Socialist government.

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Student groups and trade unions marched in Paris and France's largest cities against a reform bill they say will worsen working conditions and increase unemployment, vowing to keep up the pressure on the left-wing government until it completely abandons the measures.

In the capital, protesters rallied at Place de la République in the early afternoon, brandishing signs and shouting slogans at a demonstration that was nevertheless notable for its festive atmosphere.

Police and some protesters clashed briefly near Place de la Bastille, however, with officers using pepper spray to clear some people from Boulevard Beaumarchais. Some previous protests in Paris and other cities have seen violent confrontations between police and mainly young protesters.

Clashes also broke out Saturday between masked youths and police in the cities of Rennes and Nantes.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve strongly condemned the unrest, which he blamed on a small number of fringe protesters.

"These ultra-radical elements behind the violence have nothing to do with the vast majority of demonstrators," he said in a statement. At least seven police officers were injured overall, he added.

The interior ministry estimated Saturday's crowds at 120,000 nationwide and said 26 people were arrested.

France has seen weekly strikes and protests since the movement kicked off on March 9, with Saturday's the first to be scheduled on a weekend to allow more people to participate. Organisers called for yet another strike on April 28 and said they expected particularly large marches against the reform on Labour Day on May 1.

Opposition to the law has also spawned the so-called Nuit Debout, or Up All Night, movement in Paris and other large French cities, with large overnight sit-ins reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and the Indignados movement in Spain.

Demands by participants of the Nuit Debout have been wider in scope than the labour reforms, but in a sign of the confluence between the two, artists camped out on Place de la République on Saturday helped protesters paint banners for the march.

'Anti-constitutional'

High school and university students were once again on the front lines of the protests on Sunday, shouting slogans against labour reform and Hollande's government in equal measure.

Marthe Corpet, treasurer with the main UNEF university students union, said her group was unimpressed with the concessions the government had made earlier in the week to bolster public support for the law.

"It's the underlying logic of the law that we have a problem with," Corpet told FRANCE 24. "It will only weaken job security and increase unemployment."

French Labour Minister Myriam El-Khomri has said the reforms will encourage businesses to hire more workers by deregulating many aspects of France’s notoriously rigid labour laws, including allowing more freedom to fire workers and letting employees work longer hours.

Frédéric Vercher, a member of the powerful CGT union that was also marching on Saturday, said the law represented a "complete reversal" of French labour laws.

"The law seeks to give more power to labour negotiations at the level of an individual company, completely taking away power from negotiations at a national level. It's fundamentally wrong and anti-constitutional," he said.

Employers are also unhappy over many of the reforms, particularly the removal of a cap on the compensation that can be paid for unfair dismissal and the scuttling of plans to allow smaller companies to introduce flexible working hours unilaterally.

The protests pose yet another challenge to Hollande, who has become the least popular president in modern French history with key elections next year.

Young people and unions have long been part of his Socialist Party's voting base, but have vented their anger at Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls during recent protests for what they say is a political shift to the right.

"Hollande, Valls, traitors of the people," read one banner in Paris on Saturday.

Parliament is set to vote on the labour reforms later this month or in early May.

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