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French unions rally last-gasp protest as labour reform takes final steps (Updated)

French CGT trade union head Philippe Martinez speaks to journalists after a meeting about French labour law reforms at the Hotel Matignon in Paris

France’s government invoked special constitutional powers on Tuesday to impose labour legislation that will make it easier to hire and fire staff, overriding street protesters staging their last rally of the summer and rebels within his own party.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ decision, announced by party spokesman Olivier Faure, was immediately condemned by dissidents in his party who warned they would consider seeking a vote of no confidence in the government less than a year from elections.

“This is sad, compromise was possible,” said Laurent Baumel, one of 30 or more Socialists who say the law is a betrayal of left-wing principles. “Valls seems to have refused out of customary intransigence.”

At issue is a bill that is designed to trim a 10 per cent jobless rate, giving companies more freedom to set tailor-made pay and work conditions at company level.

As the bill returned to the National Assembly for a second review on Tuesday, labour unions mounted a last-gasp street protest too, with a heavy police turnout in Paris and other cities to counter the risk of violence seen as earlier demonstrations.

Thousands gathered for what unions acknowledged would be the last street marches before the summer holiday period.

Violence during previous waves of protests in the last four months has resulted in almost 2,000 arrests and left hundreds of riot police injured afrer running battles with gangs of youths.

Opponents say that the bill will unravel regulations that have ensured some of Europe’s highest standards of labour protection for French workers over the decades.

“This is a counterproductive law socially and economically,” said Marie-Jose Kotlicki, a member of the large CGT union, one of several labour and student organisations behind regular protests over the four months since the reform was unveiled.

“The government is making a mistake in underestimating the level of discontent over this law,” she said.

Christian Paul, another Socialist Party dissident, speaking ahead of the announcement, warned that Valls risked further alienating left-wing voters by overriding parliamentary opponents ahead of legislative and presidential elections in mid-2017.

France’s Constitution allows governments to bypass parliament under a clause known as 49.3, a strategy that opinion polls suggest is opposed by public opinion.

Valls used the 49.3 legislation at the first reading of the bill a well. It now goes to the Senate upper house for a final reading there before returning to the lower house to become law later this month.

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