French labour unrest: Tear gas, blocked roads, president firm

PARIS – Tear gas briefly choked a Left Bank neighbourhood and truckers blocked highways in Provence and Normandy in new tensions over a French labour bill Tuesday — but the president insisted that he won’t abandon the contested reform.

France is facing a tense week of strikes and other union action against the bill, which has met fierce resistance in Parliament and in the streets.

A peaceful march Tuesday by union members that wound through Paris’ tourist-heavy Montparnasse neighbourhood was interrupted when masked protesters threw projectiles, including broken cafe chairs.

Riot police responded with tear gas that rose up in the surrounding streets. A bus stop was scrawled with graffiti in English reading “Tourist go home, refugees welcome.” The march later resumed.

Truck drivers joined in the protests Tuesday, blocking roads around Marseille and the western cities of Nantes and Le Mans. They fear a drop in income because the bill cuts overtime pay.

Marseille union leader Laurent Casanova said the goal “is to paralyze traffic … and block the economy.” Truck driver John Bosco in Vitrolles, near Marseille, said the law could cut 1,000 to 1,500 euros ($1,130 to $1,700) from his annual income.

“I will not back down” on the bill, President Francois Hollande said Tuesday on Europe-1 radio, arguing that the new law is necessary to boost hiring and investment.

“There are too many governments that have backed down, which is why I found the country in such a state in 2012,” he said.

France’s economy has stagnated for years after successive governments tried reforms but failed or ceded to street protests.

A crowd of protesters followed Hollande to a pharmaceutical laboratory he was visiting Tuesday, demanding the law be abandoned.

Protests against the bill have often turned violent. Hollande said those who come to protests just “to break things” would be punished, saying that 350 police officers have been injured in recent weeks and 60 people convicted.

Paris police chief Michel Cadot blamed the violence on 100-150 people, mainly ultra-leftists — a smaller number than in previous demonstrations. Cadot, speaking on BFM-TV, said a dozen people were arrested and there were no major injuries.

Paris police banned 40 people from taking part in Tuesday’s march through the capital, prompting some to file an emergency complaint for the alleged violation of their fundamental right to demonstrate. Nine bans were lifted.

Police are taking to the streets on Wednesday — during their lunch breaks — to protest what they contend is a growing wave of ire against them.

The police chief said 200 officers have been injured — two seriously — in some 60 demonstrations since mid-March.

Hollande insisted he supports the right to demonstrate despite a state of emergency still in place after last year’s deadly extremist attacks in Paris.

“That’s part of freedom,” he said.


Masha Macpherson and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.