France deploys riot police out in force, 85 arrested as protest sets off in Paris against jobs reform

French police forces control a man prior to a demonstration against the series of controversial labour reforms on June 23, 2016 in Paris.
French police forces control a man prior to a demonstration against the series of controversial labour reforms on June 23, 2016 in Paris.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (Reuters/AFP) - France steeled itself for more clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Paris on Thursday (June 23) after the government reversed course and authorised a union-led street protest against its labour reform plans.

As more than 2,000 police officers deployed around the capital's Place de la Bastille square to control the march, President Francois Hollande said his government would not back down in pushing for legislation that will make hiring and firing easier. "We will take this bill through to the finish line," Mr Hollande told reporters.

The authorities also said that the police had arrested 85 people ahead of the protest, mainly for carrying objects that could be used as projectiles. At least one was on a list of around 100 people who had been barred from the march, which set off from the historic Place de la Bastille in the early afternoon under tight security after a march last week saw bloody clashes.

The march tested the police already stretched under a state of emergency imposed after deadly attacks by Islamist militants in November and by fan violence at the Euro 2016 soccer tournament France is hosting.

Following violence and vandalism on the fringes of protests in recent weeks, workers removed glass panes from bus stops and erected steel barriers along the route, while the Bastille underground train station was closed.

The protests against a Bill that would loosen stringent laws protecting workers' rights pit Hollande's unpopular government against the hardline CGT which is fighting for its place as France's most powerful union.

In a months-long stand-off, neither side wants to cave in and lose face.

Hollande argues the reform is key to hauling down double-digit unemployment, something he has promised if he is to run in next year's presidential election.

CGT leader Philippe Martinez accused Prime Minister Manuel Valls of pinning the blame for the escalating disorder on his group. He condemned the rioters but said the government had inflamed passions as unions sought a deal on the labour reforms.

"Every time we try to calm things down the prime minister throws fuel on the flames again."

Police searched the bags of people entering the area, with instructions to stop people wearing helmets or clothing covering their faces. Tourists and locals drank beer in nearby bars as marchers gathered.

Previous protests have been marred by hundreds of mostly masked youths engaging in running battles with police, hurling paving stones, smashing shopfronts and plastering anti-capitalist slogans on buildings. Police have said some CGT members were in involved in the violence.

The violent confrontations prompted the government to ban Thursday's march. It was the first time in more than half a century that a government had banned a union march in a country where the right to protest is keenly guarded, in particular by the political left.

However, confronted by a backlash within its own traditional support base, the Socialist government backed down and allowed the march.

The unions want the government to shelve a Bill that, in addition to making hiring and firing easier, would devolve collective bargaining to company level.

The CGT and other unions argue that will lead to a fall in standards of labour protection. The government argues it is crucial to tackling a jobless rate stuck at 10 per cent.

Opinion polls show two in three French voters are unhappy with the Bill, which has already been watered down, Valls, who forced it through the lower house without a vote in the face of a ruling party rebellion, wants it formally adopted in July.