French government fails to convince student unions on labour reform

Representatives of French high school student unions at a meeting with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (second from right), French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri (third from right) and French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron (right) at the Hotel
Representatives of French high school student unions at a meeting with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (second from right), French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri (third from right) and French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron (right) at the Hotel Matignon in Paris on March 11, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (Reuters) - The French government failed to convince student organisations in talks on Friday (March 11) of the merits of its labour reform plans, and the unions stepped out of the meetings making renewed calls for street protests next week.

Students and unions staged rallies across France on Wednesday, and more are scheduled for Saturday, Thursday and March 31.

Just over a year before presidential elections, Socialist President Francois Hollande, already deeply unpopular, has to find ways to tackle growing anger from left-wing youth organisations that would usually back him.

Hollande and his government have said they are willing to make some tweaks but want to stick to the main aspects of a reform that aims to loosen labour relations and make them open to negotiation at individual companies.

"We want that law to be withdrawn," William Martinet, the head of France's biggest student group Unef, which is close to the ruling Socialist party, said after talks with Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his labour and economy ministers.

He told reporters that Friday's talks had only strengthened the union's belief that protests were all that could be done to persuade the government to change its mind.

Unef has for decades been close to the Socialist party, and many of the party's top officials come from its ranks, some of whom are giving the union cash handouts to support its campaign.

Alexandre Leroy from students union FAGE, which says it represents 2,000 students associations, also called on students to take to the streets on Saturday. "If nothing's done, we're heading to a dead-end," he said.

The government's reform plan aims at limiting the cost of laying off workers and puts most aspects of France's strictly codified rules on labour relations up for negotiation.

Initially due to be adopted in a cabinet meeting this week, the bill was postponed by two weeks after it triggered harsh criticism from within the Socialist party.