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Labour reform sparks violent student protests in France

26 March 2016 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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AFP - Tens of thousands of students protesting labour reforms took to the streets across France on Thursday, torching cars in Paris and clashing with riot police who responded with tear gas and made more than 30 arrests.

Fifteen protesters were arrested in Paris, where two policemen were injured, and another 19 students were detained in the western city of Nantes. The reforms, which had been significantly watered down under pressure from an earlier wave of protests, were adopted on Thursday by the cabinet of the increasingly unpopular President Francois Hollande, who hopes to stand for re-election next year. “Young and insurgent, the world is ours” read one banner as some 5,000 students protested in the French capital, where students torched two cars, threw bottles at riot police and emptied a rubbish bin over other officers.

“Police everywhere, justice nowhere,” they chanted. Video of a policeman punching a student went viral on social media, and an enquiry has been opened into the incident. Protests were staged in dozens of other cities, including Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Lyon with a total turnout estimated at 43,000. Students have been at the forefront of protests over the reforms aimed at freeing up the job market and reining in France’s 10 percent unemployment rate. Among youths, joblessness is nearer to 25 percent -- among the highest in Europe. Many young people, including graduates, find themselves working on short-term contracts for several years after their studies, or doing internship after internship while hoping to secure a job. The youths, along with unions and the left flank of Hollande’s Socialist Party, say the reforms are too probusiness and threaten hallowed workers’ rights. One of Thursday’s protesters in Paris was dressed as a capitalist, wearing a top hat and smoking a cigar with a sign reading

“Business, power, finance -- all together!” Around 58 percent of the French people oppose the measures, according to a recent poll. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has touted the reforms as “intelligent, audacious and necessary” in the face of stubbornly high unemployment, which has not dropped below seven percent in 30 years. “Our country has become used to (joblessness) for too long,” he said. The pressure from opponents prompted the government this month to water down the contested reforms, walking a tightrope between the insistent demands of employers and employees. “It lends new momentum to social democracy,” said the bill’s author, Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, calling it “balanced, both providing new flexibility to companies and new protections for workers.”

But bosses are unhappy with the withdrawal of a cap on the amount companies must pay for unfair dismissal, as well as the scrapping of a measure that would have allowed small- and medium-sized companies to unilaterally introduce flexible working hours. While employers’ groups called on Valls to restore the reforms’ original goal of creating jobs, the concessions were enough to persuade several so-called “reformist” unions to get behind the new version while still urging new language on conditions for laying off workers. The seven unions and youth groups that organised Thursday’s protests are demanding the withdrawal of the reforms.

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