French parliament debates labor law after violent protests

PARIS (AP) — After a month of often violent protests, French legislators on Tuesday started to debate a hotly contested labor bill that would make it easier to lay off workers, weaken some union powers, and relax rules regulating the country’s 35-hour workweek.

The reform, aimed at making France more globally competitive, faces an uphill battle. President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government has watered it down to soothe his leftist base, but it still reportedly lacks enough support to win adoption in the National Assembly.

Amid overall frustration at France’s economic stagnation, the bill has galvanized opposition from unions and a violent fringe of youth who have clashed repeatedly with police at protests.

Thousands of protesters gathered peacefully Tuesday at the Invalides, a square located near the National Assembly, many shouting “labor law, no thank you!”

The head of the Force Ouvriere union, Jean-Claude Mailly, called on the government to withdraw the bill. The bill “destroys social rights and corresponds to the dangerous and unproven principle that we need to ease layoffs today so that employment recovers tomorrow,” he said.

Labor Minister Myriam El-Khomri told Le Parisien newspaper the government would not “cede to the street.”

Hollande insisted in a speech Tuesday that the text is a “fair compromise” that “provides businesses the visibility and the adaptation they need.”

A group of Socialist rebels has announced its intention to abstain from voting on the text, which it considers as diminishing workers’ rights.

Socialist lawmaker Christian Paul, a leading member of the rebel group, told journalists “either we substantially rewrite the text … or the government blocks the debate and in that case, we will abstain.”

The bill technically maintains the 35-hour workweek, but allows companies to organize alternative working times, up to a 48-hour workweek and 12 hours per day. In case of “exceptional circumstances,” employees could work up to 60 hours a week.