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Thousands march in tense Paris labour protest

AFP , Thursday 23 Jun 2016
French riot police officers detain demonstrators on June 23, 2016 in Rennes, western France, during a nationwide protest against government's proposed labour law reforms (Photo: AFP)

Thousands of people opposed to France's hotly contested labour reforms were back in the streets of Paris on Thursday in the first violence-free protest in weeks.

Some 2,000 riot police were deployed to prevent a repeat of bloody scenes from the last such protest on June 14, just four days after the start of the Euro 2016 football tournament being played in France.

Around 100 people were arrested even before Thursday's march set off from the historic Place de la Bastille, most with scarves or other items that which could conceal their identities, police said.

Replacing the clashes of earlier protests, in a months-old campaign against the Socialist government's labour reforms, were scenes reminiscent of the 1960s with protesters handing roses to police officers.

The police did their part to match the mood by leaving their helmets and truncheons in their armoured vans.

Bitter negotiations preceded the march, after the government first tried to ban it on security grounds before backing down and agreeing to allow a short, tightly controlled route.

The threat of a demonstration ban -- which would have been the first in France for 54 years -- only deepened the rancour between the government and unions who accuse President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls of flouting democratic values.

Eric Coquerel of France's Left Party said that in a "normal democracy, Manuel Valls would resign", following the prime minister's vocal support for a ban.

Last week masked protesters smashed up storefronts and attacked a children's hospital, shattering some windows, while others hurled projectiles at police, who made dozens of arrests.

Ahead of the latest march, workers hammered plywood onto the glass panels of bus stops around the Place de la Bastille to prevent new breakage.

Unions are protesting a package of labour market reforms that Valls had to force through parliament in May to avoid a vote, even after the bill was significantly watered down.

However, after more than three months of protests and strikes over the legislation, neither side appears willing to budge.

The proposed labour reforms are aimed at making the job market more flexible and reducing high unemployment.

Critics see the measures easing conditions for hiring and firing as too pro-business and a threat to cherished workers' rights.

Hollande insisted Thursday that his government would "go all the way" to enact the reforms, while hardline unions have vowed to keep up the pressure until their demands to further revise the bill are met.

"It is essential not only to allow businesses to be able to hire more" but to step up training that will lead to more jobs, Hollande said before the march.

The row has weighed heavily on an already overstretched police force also dealing with months of terror fears and securing the Euro football championship, which has been marred by hooligan violence.

Authorities said some 70,000 people turned out nationwide for anti-government protests on Thursday, while the far-left CGT union put the figure at nearly three times as many.

There was trouble in the western city of Rennes, with protesters torching a car, attacking police headquarters and smashing storefronts.

A survey out Sunday found that two in three French people are opposed to the labour bill, which is currently before the Senate, the upper house of parliament.

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