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France's contested labour reform reaches parliament

AFP , Tuesday 3 May 2016
French labour union members attend a demonstration against the French labour law proposal at the Place des Invalides in Paris, France, May 3, 2016 as the labour reforms law reaches parliament today with 5,000 amendments to be discussed (Photo: Reuters)

The French government's contested labour reform bill finally reached parliament on Tuesday, having sparked two months of mass protests, but neither employers nor unions are happy.

The government says the bill is designed to unlock France's rigid labour market and cut stubbornly high unemployment of around 10 percent -- the issue that has dogged Socialist President Francois Hollande's four years in power.

But since March 9, hundreds of thousands of people in cities around France have demonstrated against what they see as a reform weighed in favour of businesses.

With 12 months until the presidential election, the bill is likely to be the last of its size to be introduced by Hollande's government.

It also has the unenviable record of being the reform that has brought the most Socialist supporters onto the streets during Hollande's rocky time in office.

On Tuesday, as lawmakers begin to examine the bill, unions and student organisations held another demonstration outside the National Assembly parliament building.

Unions fear it will erode the cherished rights of workers on full-time contracts, while student organisations -- who have been at the forefront of the protests -- believe it will fail to create "real" jobs for young people.

In response to the opposition, the government has watered down its original proposals, with the result that employers are now worried.

Pierre Gattaz, the head of the employers' federation Medef, said the reform worried his members and "will fail to create jobs".

"In its current state, the bill really scares us," he told RTL radio.

"I would really like the lawmakers to go back to the initial spirit of the bill.

"This labour market needs to be unlocked. The whole world says so, Brussels says so and all the international organisations say so," he said.

Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri will attempt to address those concerns when she speaks to parliament at the start of the debate around 1500 GMT.

Police are bracing for fresh clashes with protesters after many of the demonstrations against the bill descended into violence.

Authorities believe troublemakers -- the so-called "casseurs", or breakers -- have mingled with protesters to foment clashes with riot police.

Demonstrators on the other hand accuse the police of heavy-handedness which they claim is fuelling the violence.

Participation in the demonstrations reached its peak on March 31 with nearly 400,000 people on the streets. In protests last Thursday, those numbers had fallen to 170,000.

The reform was also the central theme of the traditional May 1 workers' march in Paris, which descended into clashes between masked protesters and police.

Opposition to the bill also inspired the "Nuit Debout", or "Up All Night" movement, which has grown to encompass a range of causes.

Christophe Sirugue, the Socialist lawmaker presenting the bill to parliament, said last week that several points still needed "clarification" but that he expected the bill to pass.

Among the key remaining sticking points in the bill are measures to make it easier to lay off workers in lean times, and whether employers should be allowed to shed staff if their company is doing badly in France, even if its operations abroad are successful.

Hollande continues to face opposition from within his own party.

A group of Socialist lawmakers complained Monday that the package "is not in line with the reforms that one expects from a government of the left".

"This bill is not useful for France or for the common good," they said in a statement.

If the government fails to gather enough support for the reform, it could use a constitutional mechanism to force through the reform by decree without a vote, providing opponents do not force a no-confidence vote.

The government used the tactic last year to ram through another controversial economic reform governing trading hours and the deregulation of some sectors.

However, using such a mechanism carries the risk of further alienating left-wing voters.

Opinion polls show a majority of this group have a negative opinion of Hollande's time in office, which does not bode well for the president as he considers whether to stand for re-election.

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