Protests over French labor overhaul grip Paris, other cities

By PHILIPPE SOTTOMarketsAssociated Press

The Eiffel Tower saw service cutbacks, angry carnival workers snarled traffic around the Arc de Triomphe and police used water cannon and tear gas as unions held protests in Paris and elsewhere Tuesday against planned changes to French labor laws.

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The day of protests was the first collective outcry against President Emmanuel Macron's bid to power the economy and boost jobs by tackling France's rigid labor rules to make it easier to hire and fire workers.

The hard-line CGT union called for strikes and organized some 180 marches against the changes, unveiled last month by Macron's government.

Union leader Philippe Martinez told the crowd in Paris that reforming labor rules was a futile effort to create jobs.

"No reform which has destroyed the labor law ... has reversed the unemployment trend," Martinez said at the Place de la Bastille, the starting point of the Paris march. Such reforms don't lead to "a job with which one can build his life on."

The union said 60,000 people participated in the Paris protest. Police said 24,000 people marched and that some 300 black-clad and hooded youths who joined late in the day pelted security forces with objects, briefly halting the event.

Officers responded with tear gas and water cannon. A police statement said four people were detained and one person with a minor injury was taken to a hospital.

Macron was elected in May amid enthusiasm over his promises of revving up France's economy. He now is foundering in public opinion polls amid anger over the labor decrees and other domestic troubles.

Protesters said the reforms will give employers new powers to dismiss them, bypass trade unions and reduce their ability to defend their rights.

"There will be more short-term employment contracts, more job mobility imposed on employees and more job insecurity," Nathalie Cornu, 50, a secretary with the France's Social Security administration.

The Eiffel Tower was affected by scattered strikes, with late afternoon viewing limited to the first floor. Visitors had to access the viewing area through a stairway since elevators weren't running.

Horn-tooting fair workers held a separate protest movement Tuesday against legal changes they say favor big corporations and could wipe out their centuries-old family-based livelihoods.

Dozens of big rigs drove at a snail's pace around the Arc de Triomphe, causing rush-hour traffic snarls as protesters danced and waved flags on a flat-bed truck with a severed plastic head from a fair ride.

The workers said they timed their protest to coincide with Tuesday's broader labor demonstrations, since both movements were about workers fearing their jobs are threatened.

"Everybody likes funfairs. Everybody has been to a funfair one time in his life," bumper car worker Sam Frechon said. "Funfair is France."

Meanwhile, thousands of union activists marched Tuesday morning in the Mediterranean city of Marseille, in Le Havre on the English Channel and other cities.

Extra police officers were deployed to the afternoon march in Paris. While union marches are usually peaceful, troublemakers on the margins often clash with police. A broad movement against similar labor reforms last year saw several weeks of scattered violence.

Macron's labor decrees are the first step in what he hopes will be deep economic changes. The decrees are to be finalized this month and ratified by year's end.

Critics accuse the government of being undemocratic for using a special method to push the measures through parliament.

Companies argue that existing rules prevent them from hiring and contribute to France's high unemployment rate, currently around 10 percent.

The protests come amid anger at a comment last week by Macron suggesting that opponents of labor reform are "lazy."

Government spokesman Christophe Castaner said on RTL radio Tuesday that the president didn't mean workers themselves but politicians who failed to update French labor rules for a globalized age.

Some unions refused to join the protests, preferring to negotiate with the government over upcoming changes to unemployment and retirement rules instead of taking their grievances to the street.

Macron himself chose Tuesday to go to the French Caribbean to bring aid and meet with victims of Hurricane Irma.

A second protest organized by CGT union, like Tuesday's, has been called for Sept. 21 and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon plans a day of action Sept. 23.


John Leicester, Angela Charlton and Elaine Ganley contributed to this report.