Thousands march in tense Paris labour protest

Protestors participate in a national demonstration against the Labor Law reform in Paris on June 23, 2016.
Protestors participate in a national demonstration against the Labor Law reform in Paris on June 23, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (AFP) - Thousands of people opposed to France's hotly contested labour reforms were back in the streets of Paris on Thursday (June 23)in the first violence-free protest in weeks.

Some 2,000 riot police were deployed to prevent a repeat of bloody scenes from the last such demonstration on June 14, just four days after the start of the Euro 2016 football tournament being played in France.

Around 100 people were arrested even before Thursday's march set off from the historic Place de la Bastille, most with scarves or other items which could be used to conceal their identities, police said.

Instead of the clashes of earlier protests in a months-old campaign against the Socialist government's labour reforms, scenes reminiscent of the 1960s dominated the day, with protesters handing roses to police officers.

The police did their part to match the mood by leaving their helmets and truncheons in their armoured vans.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the march was held under "optimal conditions" with no clashes or damage reported.

"No tear gas was fired... no one was injured," he said.

Authorities said some 70,000 people turned out nationwide for anti-government protests on Thursday, while the far-left CGT union said 200,000 took to the streets of France.

But bitter negotiations preceded the march, after the government first tried to ban it on security grounds before backing down and agreeing to allow a short, tightly controlled route.

The threat of a demonstration ban - which would have been the first in France for 54 years - only deepened the rancour between the government and unions which accuse President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls of flouting democracy.

Eric Coquerel of France's Left Party said that in a "normal democracy, Manuel Valls would resign", following the Prime Minister's vocal support for a ban.

Last week, masked protesters smashed storefronts and attacked a children's hospital in Paris, shattering some windows, while others hurled projectiles at police, who made dozens of arrests.

Ahead of the latest march, workers hammered plywood onto the glass panels of bus stops around the Place de la Bastille to prevent damage.

Unions are protesting a package of labour market reforms that Valls had to force through Parliament in May to avoid a vote, even after the bill was significantly watered down.

However, after more than three months of protests and strikes over the legislation, neither side appears willing to budge.

The proposed labour reforms are aimed at making the job market more flexible and reducing high unemployment.

Critics see the measures that would ease conditions for hiring and firing as too pro-business and a threat to France's cherished workers' rights.

Hollande insisted on Thursday that his government would "go all the way" to enact the reforms, while hard-line unions have vowed to keep up the pressure until their demands to further revise the bill are met.

"It is essential not only to allow businesses to be able to hire more" but to step up training that will lead to more jobs, Hollande said before the march.

The row has weighed heavily on already overstretched police force also dealing with terror fears as well as securing the Euro football championship, which has been marred by hooligan violence.

There was trouble in the western city of Rennes, with protesters torching a car, attacking police headquarters and smashing store fronts.

A survey out on Sunday found that two in three French people are opposed to the labour Bill, which is currently before the Senate, the upper house of Parliament.