France deals with day of protests over labour reform, train strike

France same day faces demonstrations across country against labour reform and rail strikes over wage dispute

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A demonstrator holds a placard which reads "labour law = social regression" during a demonstration by workers and students against the labour law proposal in Marseille, France, March 9, 2016

France faced a wave of protests on Wednesday against President Francois Hollande's labour reforms that have divided his Socialist government and rail strikes over a wage dispute on the same day, causing significant delays around the country.

Several unions and student organizations called protests in more than 200 cities across the country against the efforts to change 35-hour workweek.

Authorities also said only one in three trains into Paris are running.

France's 35-hour workweek was voted in 2000 by the Socialists and is now a cornerstone of the left. The current Socialist government aim to reduce France's 10 percent unemployment rate -as the shortened workweek was meant to do- by giving employers flexibility in hiring and firing.

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.

The government and business leaders argue the reforms will encourage companies to take on more workers on permanent contracts rather than temporary ones, but unions and some on the Socialist Party see it as a threat to job security.

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.

French labour union workers and students attend a demonstration against the French labour law proposal in Marseille, March 9, 2016.

A poll by Oxoda shows 70 percent of French people over the age of 18 oppose the reform, and an online campaign against it reached one million signatures.  

The pro-business policy of President Hollande, whose 2012 election campaign was to improve the prospects of young people, has caused multiple rebellions among Socialists. He is already under attack from leading members of his party for shifting to the right.

On the eve of the protests Hollande said "We must also give companies the opportunity to recruit more, to give job security to young people throughout their lives, and to provide flexibility for companies."

Martine Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour workweek, described the reform as "the preparation of a long-lasting weakening of France, and of course the left."

The 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.

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

TRTWorld and agencies