Thousands take to streets in France to protest labour reform

PARIS – Tens of thousands of workers and youths took to the streets of France to protest, sometimes violently, a government reform meant to make it easier to hire and fire employees and to relax the country’s strict 35-hour workweek.

As train drivers, teachers and others went on strike, student organizations and seven employee unions combined to condemn the Socialist government’s bill, which they argue will badly erode hard-won worker protections.

“It’s shocking that a Socialist government introduced this law,” said Zoe Farre, 23, during a peaceful gathering in the driving rain in central Paris. About 28,000 people marched in Paris’ streets, according to the police.

The government and businesses claim the reforms would help the economy and reduce unemployment, which is at a high 10 per cent, by making it easier for companies to take on — and lay off — workers.

Farre, who is unemployed, said she understood the argument that more flexibility means more jobs, but she had doubts about the kinds of jobs officials were talking about. “It’s going to be like the U.K. where you’re on a zero-hour contract or like the U.S. where they make you hold a sign in the street and call it a job”, she said.

Eric Beynel, spokesman for the Solidaires union, said “the reality is that it’s already easy for companies to lay off their workers,” referring to an administrative process that allows companies to pay off an employee.

Deborah Boke, a 26-year-old school worker, said she was “totally against this law.”

Boke, who said she was going into teaching after struggling to find work after her master’s degree, accused the government of “doing the opposite of what it was elected for. The exact opposite.”

Earlier in the day, a few dozen protesters that were mostly hooded or wearing masks broke off a peaceful student demonstration in eastern Paris to hurl paint bombs at banks and stores. Some smashed cash machines with bats or set of off smoke canisters while confronting the police.

Clashes also broke out between a small group of young protesters and the police in the cities of Nantes, Rennes and Toulouse.

The strike affects public transports, schools, public hospitals and state-owned broadcasters. It is not affecting Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, though 20 per cent of flights at Paris’ Orly airport have been cancelled.

State railway company SNCF has warned of disruptions to national and regional train traffic. International lines to London and Brussels are not affected.

Paris’ Eiffel tower is closed all day. The company operating the monument said in a statement there are not enough staff to open the tower with “sufficient security and reception conditions”.

“We are quite disappointed because we are here only for three days,” said Zsolt Bencze, a tourist from Hungary who had already booked tickets to visit the tower. “So now we are planning to visit the Louvre. I hope it’s open and not closed due to some strikes or something.”

The government proposal technically maintains the 35-hour workweek but allows companies to organize alternative working times. Those include a workweek of up to 48 hours and 12-hour days. In “exceptional circumstances,” employees could work up to 60 hours a week.

The bill is to be debated in parliament in April.


Raphael Satter, Alex Turnbull and Nicolas Gariga in Paris contributed to this report.