French president stands firm on labour reforms amid new protests

17th May 2016, Comments 0 comments

French President Francois Hollande vowed Tuesday to stick with his controversial attempts to reform the labour market, even as a new round of violent protests broke out.

Police fired tear gas in central Paris as an initially peaceful protest organised by unions and students was disrupted by a more radical fringe.

The labour reforms have sparked two months of protests on France's streets and led to an unsuccessful attempt to bring down the government.

But Hollande said the battle against unemployment was not yet won and he placed the need to reform over his personal popularity, which remains at near-record lows a year ahead of a possible bid for re-election.

"I will not give way, because too many (previous) governments have backed down," Hollande said in an hour-long interview with Europe 1 radio.

"I prefer that people have an image of a president who made reforms rather than a president who did nothing," he said.

Police were quick to act as violence by masked youths broke out during a march in central Paris, kicking off another week of nationwide strikes and demonstrations against the package of reforms.

Police said up to 12,000 people had joined the march in the capital. Unions said the number was 55,000.

Lorry drivers blocked roads and ports in northern and western France, and there were clashes between protesters and police in the western cities of Nantes and Rennes, where thousands more had taken to the streets.

"We have been ignored, so we will work even harder to make our voices heard," said Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, at the Paris rally.

The government argues the changes contained in the draft law will make France's notoriously rigid labour market more flexible, but opponents say it will erode job security and do little to bring down unemployment.

- 'No alternative' -

Hollande has pledged to decide by the end of this year whether to stand for re-election next May, but he said Tuesday he saw "no alternative" to himself on the left of French politics.

"If I am not there... if the left is not re-elected, the right or the extreme-right will win," he said.

Hollande is staking his bid on bringing down the jobless rate, stuck stubbornly above 10 percent, and at nearly 25 percent for young people.

"It takes time for those reforms to take effect," Hollande said.

"The battle is not won. It will only be won when we have, over several months, a sustained fall in unemployment," he said. "I am fighting the battle every day."

The Socialist government last week survived a vote of no-confidence, called by the centre-right opposition, after it forced through the labour market reform bill without parliament's approval.

The draft law will now be debated in the Senate, the upper house of parliament.

A defiant Hollande said the draft law "is going to go through because it has been debated, agreed on and amended".

- Tougher action -

The president also promised tougher action against the troublemakers who infiltrate street protests against the reforms and provoke confrontation with police.

"It will not be accepted," Hollande said, promising more arrests and bans on protesting for others.

"Demonstrating is a right, but smashing things up is a crime," he said.

The president said more than 1,000 people had already been arrested and that 350 police officers had been injured in the violence.

His interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said 53 people had been banned from protesting.

Major travel disruption is expected through the week, with rail unions holding several strikes and airport unions planning a walk-out on Thursday that will see some 15 percent of flights cancelled at Paris Orly airport, the capital's second largest.

Ports are again due to be blocked on Thursday, and rail unions said strikes would resume at the end of the month.

© 2016 AFP

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