French unions see modest turnout for anti-reform protests

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 18, 2014 1:42 PM

PARIS (Reuters) - French unions drew tens of thousands to protests on Tuesday against President Francois Hollande's latest economic reforms, substantially lower than other union-organized demonstrations of recent years.

The protests, called by the CGT and Force Ouvriere unions, were among the first displays of street anger over Hollande's "responsibility pact", which aims to slash labor costs and kickstart job creation in Europe's second-largest economy.

But turnout was a fraction of past rallies against reform plans and fell well short of demonstrations in Paris last year against same-sex marriage that drew hundreds of thousands.

In Paris, where protests draw the largest crowds, police said some 10,000 protesters turned out versus an estimate of 60,000 from the CGT union. Nationally it said turnout was around 240,000, a figure it was impossible to verify independently.

While street opposition to Hollande's reforms has been muted, widespread frustration over unemployment above 10 percent is keeping his approval scores at record lows in the lead-up to local elections.

The president's Socialist party risks losing ground in the two-round votes on March 23 and 30 to Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party and the opposition UMP conservatives, both of which criticize his economic record.

In early March a majority of labor unions and employer groups signed off on an agreement enshrining the principle of Hollande's reform plan, which the government says will be made into a law sometime around September.

Pierre Gattaz, head of the Medef employer group criticized what he said was slow progress on reforms, calling on Hollande to spell out how he planned to finance a 30-billion-euro cut in labor costs and 50 billion euros in savings on public spending.

"The French economy is very ill, action is urgent," Gattaz told journalists at a monthly news conference. "This responsibility pact is what the doctor has ordered, but we need to move from a prescription to treatment and do it quickly."

(Reporting By Gerard Bon and Emmanuel Jarry; Writing Nicholas Vinocur; editing by Mark John)