French students and trade unions staged protest marches across the country on Wednesday against far-reaching labour reforms, testing President Francois Hollande’s mettle as he tries to lower an unemployment rate still above 10 per cent.
However, morning rallies failed to draw large crowds in rainy Paris and other cities, a sign unions might be struggling to mobilise public anger despite the unpopularity of Hollande and his Socialist government.
More rallies are planned for the afternoon and others are scheduled for the end of the month, with unions saying Wednesday’s protests were just “a warm-up”.
Up to 1,500 young people took part in a morning rally in Paris and several thousand also marched in the southern port of Marseille.
“Stop stamping on our right to a future,” one banner in Marseille read, with much of the anger targeted at Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri.
The government’s reforms put almost all aspects of France‘s strictly codified rules on labour relations up for negotiation.
Everything from maximum working hours to holidays and pay on rest breaks would be open to scrutiny in an attempt to free up business, but the main focus is on plans to limit the cost of laying off workers.
The government and business leaders say the reforms will encourage companies to take on more workers on permanent contracts rather than temporary ones, favouring young people in particular, but unions and some on the left of the ruling Socialist Party see an undue threat to job security.
Although the official working week would remain set at 35 hours, unions and employers would be able to negotiate in-house deals to spread the workload over three years, and increase it to a maximum of 46 hours over 16 consecutive weeks.
The demonstrations take place on the same day as a national rail strike. The SNCF railway operator said just over one in three of its workers had joined the strike.
Hollande will keep a close eye on the number of students on the streets, keen to avoid a repeat of the massive student protests 10 years ago that forced then-president Jacques Chirac to withdraw his labour reforms.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has already postponed the presentation of the reforms to cabinet by two weeks, a sign that the government might water down its plans.
The government is still holding talks with unions and hopes to convince moderate ones such as the CFDT, France‘s second-biggest, to approve the measures, preventing the creation of a unified front against them.
The labour reforms are set against a backdrop of sluggish economic growth, which has remained below 1.5 percent, the level considered necessary to bring down unemployment.