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Low Turnout as French Students, Unions March Against Labor Reform

  • Lisa Bryant

Students raise their fists and shout slogans during a demonstration in Marseille, southern France, March, 9, 2016.

Students raise their fists and shout slogans during a demonstration in Marseille, southern France, March, 9, 2016.

In one sign things are returning to normal in France after last year’s terrorist attacks, tens of thousands of French staged nationwide protests Wednesday against proposed labor reforms.

French demonstrators were back at the Place de La Republique in Paris. This time not rallying against terrorism, but against labor reforms proposed by the leftist government.

A rail worker’s strike added to the social disruption.

Many marching were students, like 17-year-old student Juliette Gaudin, who is worried about losing longstanding labor perks when she enters the job market.

“They are killing our rights," she said. "We are the future workers. So we are here to get our rights.”

The government's reforms put almost all aspects of France's strictly codified rules on labor relations up for negotiation.

Everything from maximum working hours to holidays and pay on rest breaks would be open to scrutiny in an attempt to free up business, but the main focus is on plans to limit the cost of laying off workers.

The government and business leaders say the reforms will encourage companies to take on more workers on permanent contracts rather than temporary ones, favoring young people in particular, but unions and some on the left of the ruling Socialist Party see an undue threat to job security.

Although the official working week would remain set at 35 hours, unions and employers would be able to negotiate in-house deals to spread the workload over three years, and increase it to a maximum of 46 hours over 16 consecutive weeks.

Public Demonstrations

The sounds of a few firecrackers made some Paris marchers jumpy. Emergency measures imposed after the November terrorist attacks here temporarily banned public demonstrations. The state of emergency is still in place, but people can now demonstrate although police were out in force.

Demonstrators hold union flags march during a rally in Paris, France, March 9, 2016.

Demonstrators hold union flags march during a rally in Paris, France, March 9, 2016.

Many said they were not afraid. Sonia and Thomas Aziza were protesting with their two children.

“We are not scared at all, no problem, no," Sonia said. "Life goes on and we have not changed our way of living in Paris.”

President Francois Hollande is staking his reelection on turning around the country’s high unemployment. Economists, like business professor Tomasz Mikalski, believe the reforms, aimed at making it easier for businesses to hire and fire, among other things, are key.

“France is the last of the large countries in the European Union that has not approached any labor reforms in recent years,” he said.

Protesters here believe the leftist government has sold them out. But business owners largely support the reforms. Unions are divided, while the right wants to go even further. It all points to more unrest in France in the months to come.

Demonstrators march at the Place de La Republique, rallying against labor reforms proposed by the leftist government, Paris, France, March 9, 2016. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Demonstrators march at the Place de La Republique, rallying against labor reforms proposed by the leftist government, Paris, France, March 9, 2016. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Hollande will keep a close eye on the number of students on the streets, keen to avoid a repeat of the massive student protests 10 years ago that forced then-president Jacques Chirac to withdraw his labor reforms.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has already postponed presentation of reforms to the cabinet by two weeks, a sign that the government might water down its plans.

The government is still holding talks with unions and hopes to convince moderate ones such as the CFDT, France's second-biggest, to approve the measures, preventing the creation of a unified front against them.

The labor reforms are set against a backdrop of sluggish economic growth, which has remained below 1.5 percent, the level considered necessary to bring down unemployment.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters.

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