Growing street protests and vote of confidence test French government on labour reform

French President Francois Hollande faces growing street protests and a wave of transport strikes over his decision to force through labour reforms.
Riot police standing next to a fire during a protest against the French government's labour reform, in Paris on May 12, 2016.
Riot police standing next to a fire during a protest against the French government's labour reform, in Paris on May 12, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande on Thursday (May 12) faced a growing revolt in the streets and a wave of transport strikes over his decision to force through labour reforms, while his government braced for a vote of confidence called by the opposition.

A day after rebel French Socialist lawmakers failed to gather enough support from among the party and left-wing allies to table their own no-confidence motion, street protests in cities across France underlined widespread opposition to the reforms.

The Bill, which the government this week said it would force through the National Assembly without a vote, proposes making it simpler to lay off staff in hard times and allow employers to apply in-house rules on pay and conditions, instead of national ones.

Raising the stakes for Mr Hollande, who is pondering whether to run for re-election next year, the muscular CGT union announced rolling railway strikes from next week and truck drivers are poised to do the same.

Mr Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, said it was time to "move up a gear", declaring Thursday's protest a warm-up ahead of demonstrations and walkouts next week. "It's just the beginning," he said.

There were fears Thursday's protests could turn ugly after violent clashes between police and hooded youths on the fringes of earlier demonstrations, in which hundreds of police were injured by petrol bombs and other missiles.

Mr Hollande's conservative opponents tabled the confidence vote, due to take place at about 4.30pm, after Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared the government would bypass Parliament and impose a relaxation of France's notoriously protective labour regulations.

As crowds marched through cities under heavy police escort, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said there was no question of withdrawing the reform.

A vote of no confidence would force the government's resignation. But it is expected to survive because rebel Socialists are unlikely to cross the political divide and side with their political foes.

A series of strikes and waves of street protests that have shown no sign of relenting since they began in late March suggest popular discontent over a reform that pollsters say three out of four people oppose is becoming more entrenched.

The official reason for the rail strike call is a standoff with management over conditions, but its timetable dovetails with the broader protests against government policy.

The resistance has left a deeply unpopular Hollande in an uncomfortable position a year from elections.

The labour reform is also under fire from a rolling youth protest movement known as Nuit Debout, or "Night Uprising".

The Interior Ministry advised motorists to stay away from central Paris ahead of an afternoon march and also reported traffic halted by road blockages in other parts of the country.

Mr Hollande has several other problems piling up.

Media speculation is rife that his youthful economy minister, Mr Emmanuel Macron, could run for president in the election scheduled for May 2017.

His government has also been caught up in a controversy over sexual harassment in the corridors of power.

After the resignation of a politician accused of harassing female colleagues, a close Hollande ally, Finance Minister Michel Sapin, on Wednesday admitted behaving inappropriately towards a female journalist.