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French government says open to labour reform tweaks after street protests

French labour union workers attend a demonstration against the French labour law proposal in Nice

The French government is willing to make some tweaks to its pro-business labour reforms to ease concerns about them, Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri said on Thursday, a day after a series of street protests.

Students and unions staged rallies across the country on Wednesday against the far-reaching labour reform plans, with the official interior ministry figure of 224,000 protesters far from a record but still high enough to worry the government.

“People are protesting, it’s there, we must listen to the criticism,” Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri told France Info radio.

One way to answer those concerns would be to slap higher payroll taxes on short-term contracts to encourage employers to hire workers as permanent staff, El Khomri said.

The government might make a further concession by keeping a rule that requires authorisation from work inspectors before apprentices can be made to work longer hours, she said.

“Withdrawing that proposal (to change the rule) is on the table,” she said.

These ideas are unlikely to be game-changers though. The short-term contract taxation plan is already on the table in ongoing negotiations between labour unions and employers groups, and the apprentices’ issue would be just a minor tweak to the draft law.

But the government is working on more far-reaching changes to the draft law, government and union sources said. These could include raising a planned cap on unfair dismissal compensation and watering down some measures aimed at making it easier for businesses to lay off workers when the business isn’t going well.

In another move to prevent youth discontent from boiling over, Prime Minister Manuel Valls will meet with student organisations on Friday morning, an aide to the prime minister said.

The government’s reform plans 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, while the main focus is on plans to limit the cost of laying off workers.

Initially due to be adopted in a cabinet meeting this week, the bill was postponed by two weeks after it triggered harsh criticism from within the ruling Socialist party.

Public opinion appeared divided, with 50 percent of respondents in an Elabe poll supporting the protests, a quarter opposing them and another quarter expressing indifference.

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