Strikes rock France as PM urges 'harsh' treatment for rioters

19th May 2016, Comments 0 comments

France was disrupted by a third straight day of mass strikes and demonstrations on Thursday as the prime minister called for protesters who torched a police car to face "harsh" punishment.

Dozens of flights and trains were cancelled as rail staff and air traffic controllers walked off the job in the latest mass protests against the government's labour market reforms.

Taking an increasingly hard line after two months of demonstrations, Prime Minister Manuel Valls threatened to use force to break up protests which interfered with the operation of ports, refineries and airports.

But he reserved his strongest words for those who attacked a police car in Paris on Wednesday on the sidelines of a rare rally by police officers protesting against "anti-cop hatred".

While a policeman and a policewoman were still inside the car, a small group of masked protesters beat the vehicle with iron bars before hurling in an explosive device.

Both officers escaped unharmed.

Valls said: "The punishment must be harsh. The inquiry has just started, arrests have been made."

Five suspects have been arrested over the attack.

A video of the incident posted on Facebook had registered 6.4 million hits by 1400 GMT.

Tensions ran high as up to 14,000 people marched in Paris on Thursday, according to police estimates, with masked protesters again seeking confrontation with riot police.

Violence has erupted at several demonstrations in recent weeks -- mostly against the labour reforms forced through parliament by the deeply unpopular government of President Francois Hollande.

Small groups of troublemakers appear to have infiltrated the protests, bent on attacking security forces.

After Wednesday's violence, Paris police chief Michel Cadot slapped bans on another 19 people designated as hardcore activists, forbidding them from joining demonstrations.

And he called on those taking part in the protest marches to physically distance themselves from any violent activists.

Security marshalls appointed by the unions to control the march appeared to have heeded a call from police to leave clubs and batons at home.

Cadot had already issued around 40 orders banning people judged to be troublemakers from attending demonstrations, but some of those orders have been suspended by the courts.

- Bitterly contested reforms -

Valls also called on demonstration organisers to prevent troublemakers -- known in French as "casseurs" -- from mingling with the crowd.

But his call for organisers to think twice before staging a protest was dismissed by CGT union chief Philippe Martinez.

"You cannot prevent democracy from being expressed just because there are problems on the sidelines of demonstrations," he said.

Over the past two months, some 350 members of the security forces have been injured during protests against the proposed labour reforms, which were forced through the lower house of parliament last week without a vote.

The national rail operator SNCF said around 14 percent of its staff had gone on strike Thursday, while Orly airport -- the second-largest in Paris -- was forced to cancel 15 percent of its flights.

The government says the changes contained in the draft law will make France's notoriously rigid labour market more flexible and create jobs.

But opponents say the reforms will erode job security and do little to bring down the unemployment rate, stuck at 10 percent and nearly 25 percent for young people.

The labour reform, which would make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers, is likely the last major piece of legislation to be put forward by Hollande's government.

Hollande, whose poll ratings are among the lowest of any post-war French president, has said he will decide by the end of the year whether to run for re-election next May.

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© 2016 AFP

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