French protesters clash with police over labour reforms

31st March 2016, Comments 0 comments

Clashes broke out on the streets of France on Thursday during fresh protests over labour reforms, just a day after beleaguered President Francois Hollande was forced into an embarrassing U-turn over constitutional changes.

A nationwide strike shut the Eiffel Tower, disrupted train services and saw dozens of schools closed or barricaded by students.

Riot police flooded the streets and clashed with protesters in the western cities of Nantes and Rennes, among 200 demonstrations expected across the country.

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".

Adding to Hollande's miserable week, a separate strike by air traffic controllers threatened travel chaos for thousands of passengers, while drivers faced more than 400 kilometres (250 miles) of tailbacks on motorways around Paris.

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 and demonstrators 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 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.

- Least popular president -

Already the least popular president in France's modern history, Hollande is seeing his numbers continue to fall, with another poll on Wednesday showing he would not even make it to the second-round run-off in the presidential election.

Hollande, 61, has vowed not to run again if he cannot cut the country's stubbornly high unemployment figures -- long stuck 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 video of an officer punching a 15-year-old boy on the sidelines of a protest in the capital went viral and fuelled further anger.

The officer was taken into custody and questioned on Thursday, police and judicial sources said.

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.

- Air travel chaos -

Aviation authorities told airlines to cancel 20 percent of their flights from Paris Orly airport on Thursday and a third of flights from the Mediterranean city of Marseille as air traffic controllers went on strike again.

Paris' Charles De Gaulle airport was not expected to be affected by the 36-hour walkout over job cuts and a lack of investment in new technology.

The Airlines for Europe lobby group said it was the 43rd strike by French air traffic controllers since 2009. It was due to end at 5:00 am (0300 GMT) on Friday.

A strike last week disrupted travel plans for thousands of passengers as airlines were forced to cancel up to a third of flights.

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© 2016 AFP

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