French protesters clash with police over labour reforms

Protesters march with placards during a demonstration against labour law reforms in Paris on March 31, 2016.
Protesters march with placards during a demonstration against labour law reforms in Paris on March 31, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Clashes broke out on the streets of France on Thursday (March 31) during fresh protests over labour reforms, just a day after beleaguered President Francois Hollande was forced into an embarrassing U-turn over constitutional changes.

A nationwide strike shut the Eiffel Tower, disrupted train services and saw dozens of schools closed or barricaded by students.

Riot police used tear gas against stone-throwing protesters in the western cities of Nantes and Rennes, among 200 demonstrations drawing tens of thousands people nationwide despite rainy weather.

Police said around 10 youths were arrested in Paris, where demonstrators threw firecrackers and yellow paint at security forces.

Adding to Hollande's miserable week, a separate strike by air traffic controllers threatened headaches for thousands of passengers, while drivers faced more than 400km of tailbacks on motorways around Paris.

The Socialist government is desperate to push through reforms to France's controversial labour laws, billed as a last-gasp attempt to boost the flailing economy before next year's presidential election.

But it has faced a wave of often violent protests by unions and students angry over plans to make it easier for struggling companies to fire workers, even though the reforms have already been diluted once in a bid to placate employers.

Hollande's government was still reeling from his decision Wednesday to abandon constitutional changes that would have allowed dual nationals convicted of terrorism to be stripped of their French citizenship.

The measure had been derided as ineffective and divisive, including by left-wing rebels within the Socialist party - many of whom also oppose the labour reforms.

Already the least popular president in France's modern history, Hollande's numbers continue to fall, with a new poll Thursday showing his approval rating at a new low of 15 per cent.

Another poll on Wednesday showed he would not even make the second-round run-off in the presidential election.

Hollande, 61, has vowed not to run again if he cannot cut the country's stubbornly high unemployment figures - long stuck at around 10 per cent - and he hoped the labour reforms would encourage firms to hire more staff.

Pressure from the street and parliament's back benches caused the government to water down the proposals two weeks ago so that they apply only to large firms.

Some reform-minded unions have backed the changes, but the unions behind Thursday's protests said in a statement on Thursday: "Clearly, this bill will not lead to the necessary job creation, will make insecurity more widespread and will deepen professional inequality, notably for women and youths."

A recent opinion poll found 58 per cent of the public still opposed the labour reform bill.

A video of an officer punching a 15-year-old boy on the sidelines of a protest last week went viral and fuelled further anger. The officer was detained for questioning on Thursday.

Joblessness is nearer to 25 per cent among the young, with many stuck on an endless cycle of short-term contracts and internships.

Bosses are also unhappy with the reforms, particularly over the removal of a cap on compensation paid for unfair dismissal, and the scrapping of plans that would have allowed small- and medium-sized companies to unilaterally introduce flexible working hours.

Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri said this week that she understood why "such a profoundly reformist text has raised questions and requires debate", adding: "It is not a blank cheque for companies." Parliament is set to vote on the reforms in late April or early May.

Aviation authorities told airlines to cancel 20 per cent of their flights from Paris Orly airport on Thursday and a third of flights from the Mediterranean city of Marseille as air traffic controllers went on strike again.

Paris' Charles De Gaulle airport was not expected to be affected by the 36-hour walkout over job cuts and a lack of investment in new technology.

The Airlines for Europe lobby group said it was the 43rd strike by French air traffic controllers since 2009. It was due to end at 5am (0300 GMT) on Friday.