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France threatens to ban Paris protests after violent anti-govt demonstration

AFP Archives | Manuel Valls in the National Assembly on May 17, 2016.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has threatened to ban street protests in Paris after violence – including the smashing of windows at a children’s hospital – marred a demonstration on Tuesday against proposed changes to France’s labour law.

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Valls’ comments were aimed particularly against the hard-line CGT union, which has been at the forefront of protests against a law aimed at boosting France’s economy.

The law seeks to make hiring and firing easier, and crucially would allow large companies to negotiate working conditions directly with their employees, sidelining unions.

Tuesday’s rally was, by all estimations, huge. Police estimated a turnout of up to 80,000 in Paris alone for the event (The CGT claimed a million people turned out for the demonstration), which was organized by the CGT and smaller militant unions.

But on the sidelines of the protest, which was sea of red CGT banners and angry but well-behaved demonstrators, masked youths fought running battles with police while laying waste to shopfronts and banks.

‘Take responsibility’

Valls, who has vowed not to back down on pushing through the employment law, which has the support of another leading national union, the CFDT, told the CGT in no uncertain terms on Wednesday that it was to blame for the breakdown in order.

“When you cannot organise a demo and take responsibility, leaving thugs in the middle of the march ... then you just don’t organise a demonstration that is going to degenerate,” Valls said on France Inter radio before visiting the Necker children’s hospital whose windows had been methodically smashed by “casseurs” (“breakers”, or “smashers”, a term for violent anarchist protesters).

The CGT responded in a strongly-worded statement that the city’s police authorities, which had authorized the demonstration, were ultimately responsible for security “in the same way that it is not the responsibility of football supporters to police security at Euro 2016 games”.

The statement added, paradoxically, that union members responsible for maintaining order at the demonstration had done their job with “calmness and assurance”, despite the outbreaks of violence.

The right to protest in France, and the power of unions in large businesses, is enshrined in law. Forbidding demonstrations in the French capital would therefore be an unpopular and provocative step for the French government.

Technically, according to a clause of 1789 law that has survived on the statute books, the government can forbid a demonstration “if it threatens public order”.

This clause was used in 2014 to forbid a demonstration in support of the people of Gaza after episodes of violence. The protest took place anyway, but degenerated into a running battle between angry youths and police.

The CGT’s conundrum

The CGT’s continued protests against the proposed law, which has included strikes by public transport and municipal services such as rubbish collection, as well as the violence that erupted on Tuesday, has come at a bad time for France.

The Euro 2016 football championship, which was supposed to showcase France but has been the focus instead of media attention on violent scenes of hooliganism, has been a policing headache and bad PR for a country trying to lift itself from the economic doldrums.

France is also facing an unprecedented security threat, with the mass killing of November 13, 2015 casting a long shadow over the collective mood, made worse by the murder Tuesday of a French police commander and his wife at the hands of a terrorist who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Violent anarchist protests which have little or nothing to do with the proposed employment law – police made 58 arrests on Tuesday and said many of those detained were not French – have tested the government’s patience and threaten to tip public opinion away from the CGT (which has been enjoying 70% support, according to some polls).

“This is a conundrum being faced by CGT leader Philippe Martinez,” Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who first secretary of the ruling Socialist Party, told French news magazine Le Point on Wednesday. “He needs to wake up to the fact that more protests are not going to make his movement any more popular, quite the opposite.”

“The CGT also needs to wake up to the fact that it is being used and exploited by the violent anarchists” causing trouble on the sidelines of anti-government protests, he added. “This is the tenth CGT protest that has degenerated into violence.”

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