French PM forces through contested labour law

People hold a banner reading "Work, anti-racist and feminist" during a labour reform protest in Paris on July 5, 2016.
People hold a banner reading "Work, anti-racist and feminist" during a labour reform protest in Paris on July 5, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - French Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Tuesday bypassed parliament to force through labour reforms that have sparked four months of strikes and street protests.

"This country is too used to mass unemployment," Valls told parliament as many members booed and several walked out of the chamber.

He said a "coalition of immobility" had stymied the reforms, which aim at reducing unemployment by freeing up the job market - notably by making it easier for employers to hire and fire staff.

It was the second time the embattled government used the so-called 49-3 provision for this package of reforms, as it could not count on the votes of legislators on the Socialist Party's left flank.

It used the same measure to force a package of economic reforms through parliament last year, also to prevent the rebel left flank of the party from sinking it.

The labour Bill now continues on its bicameral shuttle.

It returns to the Senate before its definitive adoption by the lower house on July 22 - when Valls is expected to again resort to the 49-3 manoeuvre for the final step.

In the streets, meanwhile, protesters staged their 12th show of opposition to the controversial package, seen as too pro-business and a threat to cherished workers' rights.

However, the numbers were down from previous protests.

A Paris protest drew up to 7,500 people according to police and 45,000 according to the hardline CGT union.

Demonstrations peaked on March 31 at 390,000 people across the country, according to official figures, while the unions claim the figure was 1.2 million.

Unemployment in France stands at a stubborn 10 per cent overall, but for young people the figure is closer to 25 per cent.

Union- and student-backed demonstrations against the reforms began nearly four months ago, with some protests descending into violence.

MPs have 24 hours to decide whether to call a vote of no confidence in Valls' government, which the rightwing opposition has already ruled out.

The government survived a vote of no-confidence by a comfortable margin over its use of the 49-3 clause in May.

On Tuesday, the head of the Republicans' parliamentary group, Christian Jacob, said the centre-right party would not call such a vote this time around.

Union- and student-backed demonstrations against the reforms began in early March, with some protests descending into violence.

The worst unrest was seen in Paris on June 14, just four days after the start of the Euro 2016 football championships in France, when around 40 people were hurt and dozens were arrested.

President Francois Hollande, who faces a re-election bid next April, had hoped for a signature reform to reverse his dire approval ratings.

But pressure from the street, as well as parliament's back benches, caused the government to water down the proposals, which only angered bosses while failing to satisfy the unions.

The main sticking point has been a measure giving precedence to agreements negotiated between companies and their staff over deals reached with unions across entire industrial sectors - notably on working hours.

"Compromise was possible, it was even within reach," said Christian Paul, head of the Socialist rebels.

Pierre Gattaz, the head of the employers' federation MEDEF, said last week that he was "very disappointed" with the Bill in its watered-down form, calling it a "monument of complexity, absolutely illegible" for small and medium-sized businesses.

"No one on the ground understands anything anymore and it's a law that will be of absolutely no use for employment," Gattaz said after meeting with Valls.

The prime minister on Tuesday said more than 800 amendments had been added to the legislation after "a quality debate".

Last week, the right-dominated Senate approved a more business-friendly version of the legislation, but when the two houses fail to agree a text, as in this case, the National Assembly has the final say.

The Senate Bill, passed by a vote of 185 to 156, would scrap the 35-hour work week and restore a cap on the amount employers would have to pay out when they lose labour disputes.