Tuesday 17 January 2017

Thousands join protests across France over labour reform

Published 09/03/2016 | 11:41

Demonstrators march during a rally in Paris (AP)
Demonstrators march during a rally in Paris (AP)
Students march during a protest in Paris (AP)

Tens of thousands of people have protested across France against President Francois Hollande's bid to achieve what his conservative predecessor did not even dare try - tamper with the 35-hour working week.

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Workers, the unemployed and students joined forces, answering calls from student organisations and unions in more than 200 cities across France to try to kill the Bill, which has even divided Mr Hollande's ruling Socialist party.

According to various unions quoted by local media, between 80,000 and 100,000 people took to the streets in the French capital.

The protests fell on the same day as rail strikes that delayed some suburban and long-distance trains - but not local transportation networks in Paris.

The contested labour reform would amend France's 35-hour working week, approved in 2000 by the Socialists and now a cornerstone of the left. The current Socialist government wants adjustments to reduce France's 10% unemployment rate as the shortened working week was meant to do.

The proposal technically maintains the 35-hour working week, but allows companies to organise alternative working times without following industry-wide deals - up to a 48-hour working week and 12 hours per day. In "exceptional circumstances", employees could work up to 60 hours a week.

To allow companies to deal with business booms, one measure would allow employees to work more than 35 hours without being paid overtime. In exchange, they would have more days off later on. Other measures would relax rules on lay-offs and working from home and at night.

The proposals have turned all major employee unions and youth organisations against the government. With next year's presidential election looming and Mr Hollande's popularity having reached its nadir, legislation to make it easier for companies to end employment deals is fuelling discontent in a country badly hit by the economic downturn.

Mr Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had vowed to end France's 35-hour week, but he never scrapped the policy during his five-year tenure.

"This law is even more shocking that it has been drafted by Socialists," a protester said.

"This law is just aiming at making lay-offs easier for companies," he told The Associated Press at a big gathering on Paris' Place de la Republique.

Several high schools across France were blocked off by students who set up barricades with rubbish bins.

Outside the Helene Boucher high school, students cheered any mention of how the movement would prevent Mr Hollande and the government from passing the Bill.

Maryanne Gicquel, a spokeswoman for the FIDL student union, described young people's journey towards a stable job as "a succession of internships and poorly-paid jobs".

"Now we're being told that it will be easier for companies to lay off workers," she said.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls' government insisted that the Bill will not be withdrawn but discussions continue with union representatives. The Bill, initially set to be discussed at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, has been delayed by two weeks amid growing opposition.

Mr Hollande reiterated his support for the Bill after meeting with his ministers at the Elysee Palace.

Martine Aubry - the former first secretary of the Socialist Party and architect of the 35-hour week - described it as "the preparation of a long-lasting weakening of France, and of course, the left".

Many protesters agreed with her.

"This whole thing has one goal: destroying our labour code, while we should all think about new ways of reducing the average working hours," said Sebastien Marchal, a 36-year-old graphic designer.

Press Association

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