French President Francois Hollande has vowed to stick with his controversial attempts to reform the labour market, even as a new round of violent protests broke out.
Police fired tear gas in central Paris as an initially peaceful protest organised by unions and students was disrupted by a more radical fringe.
The labour reforms have sparked two months of protests on France’s streets and led to an unsuccessful attempt to bring down the government.
But Hollande said the battle against unemployment was not yet won and he placed the need to reform over his personal popularity, despite his possible bid for re-election next year.
“I will not give way because too many (previous) governments have backed down,” Hollande said in an hour-long interview with Europe 1 radio. “I prefer that people have an image of a president who made reforms rather than a president who did nothing.”
Police were quick to act as violence caused by masked youths broke out during a march by thousands of people through central Paris, kicking off another week of nationwide strikes and demonstrations against the package of reforms.
Truck drivers blocked roads and ports in northern and western France, and there were also clashes between protesters and police in the western cities of Nantes and Rennes, where thousands more had taken to the streets.
“We have been ignored, so we will work even harder to make our voices heard,” said Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, at the Paris rally.
The government argues the changes contained in the draft law will make France’s notoriously rigid labour market more flexible, but opponents say it will erode job security and do little to bring down unemployment.
Hollande has pledged to decide by the end of this year whether to stand for re-election next May, but he said yesterday that he saw “no alternative” to himself on the left of French politics.
“If I am not there ... if the left is not re-elected, the right or the extreme-right will win,” the president said.
Hollande is staking his bid on bringing down the jobless rate, stuck stubbornly above 10%, and at nearly 25% for young people.
“It takes time for those reforms to take effect,” Hollande said.
“The battle is not won. It will only be won when we have, over several months, a sustained fall in unemployment,” the president said. “I am fighting the battle every day.”
The Socialist government last week survived a vote of no-confidence, which was called by the centre-right opposition, after it forced through the labour market reform bill without parliament’s approval.
The draft law will now be debated in the Senate, the upper house of parliament.
A defiant Hollande said the draft law “is going to go through because it has been debated, agreed on and amended”.
The president also promised tougher action against the troublemakers who infiltrate street protests against the reforms and provoke confrontation with riot police.
“It will not be accepted,” Hollande said, promising more arrests and bans on protesting for others.
“Demonstrating is a right, but smashing things up is a crime,” he said.
The president said more than 1,000 people had already been arrested and that 350 police officers had been injured in the violence.
Major travel disruptions are expected through the week, with railway unions holding several strikes and airport unions planning a walk-out tomorrow. Ports are again due for blockages tomorrow.
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