PARIS (Reuters) - French students and trade unions staged protest marches across the country on Wednesday against far-reaching labor reforms, testing President Francois Hollande’s mettle as he tries to lower an unemployment rate still stuck above 10 percent.
Organizers said hundreds of thousands of people took part and the interior ministry put the figure at 224,000, though that is less than in some previous nationwide demonstrations in France - a possible sign that unions are struggling to mobilize public anger against Hollande’s unpopular Socialist government.
Unions said the protests were just “a warm-up” ahead of further planned rallies, however, and the government will be keen to prevent the simmering discontent among students, traditionally at the forefront of France’s largest protest movements, from boiling over in coming weeks.
Up to 100,000 young people took part in Wednesday’s rallies, the unions said. Some 90 of France’s 2,500 secondary schools were blocked by their students, the education ministry said.
“Stop stamping on our right to a future,” one banner in the southern port city of Marseille read, with much of the anger targeted at Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, who is spearheading the reforms.
“This bill is supposed to help hiring but all I see is that it helps dismissal,” Bouchra Jellab of student group Unef told Reuters TV.
Public opinion appeared divided, with 50 percent of respondents in an Elabe poll supporting the protests, a quarter opposing them and another quarter expressing indifference.
The government’s reforms put almost all aspects of France’s strictly codified rules on labor relations up for negotiation.
Everything from maximum working hours to holidays and pay on rest breaks would be open to scrutiny in an attempt to free up business, but the main focus is on plans to limit the cost of laying off workers.
The government and business leaders say the reforms will encourage companies to take on more workers on permanent contracts rather than temporary ones, favoring young people in particular, but unions and some on the left of the ruling Socialist Party see an undue threat to job security.
Although the official working week would remain set at 35 hours, unions and employers would be able to negotiate in-house deals to spread the workload over three years, and increase it to a maximum of 46 hours over 16 consecutive weeks.
The demonstrations take place on the same day as a national rail strike. The SNCF railway operator said just over one in three of its workers had joined the strike.
Hollande will keep a close eye on the number of students on the streets, keen to avoid a repeat of massive student protests 10 years ago that forced then-president Jacques Chirac to withdraw his labor reforms.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has already postponed the presentation of the reforms to cabinet by two weeks, in a sign that the government might water down its plans.
Center-right opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy told Le Monde newspaper he expected the government’s reformist zeal to fizzle.
The government is still holding talks with unions and hopes to convince moderate ones such as the CFDT, France’s second-biggest, to approve the measures, preventing the creation of a unified front against them.
The labor reforms are set against a backdrop of sluggish economic growth, which has remained below 1.5 percent, the level considered necessary to bring down unemployment.
Reporting by Pascale Antonie; Antony Paone, Lucien Libert, Myriam Rivet and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris and Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille; Writing by Michel Rose and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Callus and Gareth Jones