France faces day of protests over labour reform, train strike

PARIS - Angry unions and youth joined forces Wednesday in a day of protests against French President Francois Hollande's effort to tamper with the country's 35-hour workweek.

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Several union and student organizations called protests in more than 200 cities across France to try to kill the bill which has even divided Hollande's Socialists.

The protests fall on the same day as rail strikes that are delaying some suburban and long-distance trains - but not local transport.

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

The proposal technically maintains the 35-hour workweek, but allows companies to organize alternative working times without following industry-wide deals, up to a 48-hour workweek 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 layoffs and working from home and at night.

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

Ahead of big gathering scheduled on Paris's Place de la Republique on Wednesday afternoon, several Parisian high schools were blocked by students who set up a barricade with garbage cans.

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

Maryanne Gicquel, a spokesperson for the FIDL student union, described young people's journey to 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Prime Minister Manuel Valls' government insisted that the bill won't be withdrawn but discussions continue with union representatives. The bill, initially set to be discussed at Parliament on Wednesday, has been delayed by two weeks amid growing opposition.

A recent survey by pollster Oxoda found that 70 per cent of French people over the age of 18 opposed the bill. An online petition for its withdrawal has gathered more than 1 million signatures.

Hollande's pro-business policy, a shift from his left-wing campaign in 2012, has caused multiple rebellions among Socialists and the draft law is playing havoc within the ruling party. Martine Aubry - the architect of the 35-hour week - decribed it as "the preparation of a long-lasting weakening of France, and of course the left."

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Alex Turnbull and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.



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