Street protests, strike in France to reject labor reform

PARIS (AP) — Workers and students held street protests, some of them violent, across France on Thursday while train drivers, teachers and others went on strike to reject a government reform relaxing the 35-hour workweek and other labor rules.

Student organizations and seven employee unions called for the protests to reject the Socialist government’s bill, which they argue will badly damage hard-fought worker protections.

“It’s shocking that a Socialist government introduced this law,” said Zoe Farre, 23, during a peaceful gathering of thousands in the driving rain in central Paris.

The government and businesses claim the reforms would help the economy by making it easier for companies to hire people by making it also easier to lay off workers. France’s unemployment rate is hovering at 10 percent.

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.

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 western cities of Nantes and Rennes.

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

State railway company SNCF has warned of disruptions to national and regional train traffic. International lines to London and Brussels should not be 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 and Nicolas Gariga in Paris contributed to this report.