PARIS (AFP) - Thousands of business owners took to the streets in French cities Monday in a rare protest against hefty taxes, charges and stifling regulations they say are driving their firms into the ground.
France is no stranger to disgruntled workers rising up in anger but employers' protests are unusual, and Monday's demonstrations underlined a general sense of stagnation or decline in Europe's second-biggest economy.
According to organisers, 6,000 protested in the French capital, 2,000 in the southwestern city of Toulouse and several hundred in Marseille in the south.
Police however put the number at 2,200 in Paris, where protesters headed to the finance ministry, a huge, imposing building barricaded behind several rows of riot police, shouting "Free our businesses" and other slogans.
In Toulouse, protesters held banners reading "Taxes, levies, charges: enough is enough" or "Six local firms die every hour".
"This year, 70,000 businesses went bankrupt. That's 110,000 jobs gone," said Gerard Ramond, head of the regional branch of the CGPME that represents the bosses of small and medium-sized enterprises.
"We are not demanding money but we are asking for less regulation and payroll taxes, as well as more flexibility in employment," he said.
France is struggling to lift itself out of a years-long rut of feeble growth and increasing unemployment, while fending off persistent EU demands to reduce its budget deficit.
Part of France's chronically high unemployment is blamed on red tape and onerous taxes that businesses say prevent them from taking on as many employees as they would like.
The government of President Francois Hollande has promised to cut payroll taxes for businesses in return for new hires, but companies complain that they are still struggling with other crippling constraints.
Pierre Gattaz, the influential head of France's Medef employers' union, estimated Monday that between 2010 and 2015, businesses would have been hit by a 42-billion-euro (S$68.4-billion) tax rise.
Eric Brule, the head of a regional federation representing small construction firms, said his members were asking for "simplification" of government rules in the sector - a demand that French leaders have promised to address.