PARIS (AP) — After a month of often violent protests, French lawmakers on Tuesday started to debate a hotly contested labor bill that would make it easier to lay off workers, weaken some union powers, and relax rules regulating the country's 35-hour workweek.
The reform, aimed at making France more globally competitive, faces an uphill battle. President Francois Hollande's Socialist government has watered it down to soothe his leftist base, but it still reportedly lacks enough support to be adopted by the National Assembly.
Amid overall frustration at France's economic stagnation, the bill has galvanized opposition from unions and a violent fringe of youth who have clashed repeatedly with police at protests.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered peacefully Tuesday at the Invalides, a square located near the National Assembly, many shouting "labor law, no thank you!"
The head of the Force Ouvriere union, Jean-Claude Mailly, called on the government to withdraw the bill. The labor reform "destroys social rights and corresponds to the dangerous and unproven principle that we need to ease layoffs today so that employment recovers tomorrow," he said.
Ilhame Kharbach, spokeswoman for the National Student Coordination, said the changes made to the bill are only superficial.
"The philosophy of the law and the reason why we fight have not changed. It would worsen workers' rights so no, we'll keep saying no!" she told the AP.
In a speech to lawmakers at the start of the debate, Labor Minister Myriam El-Khomri said she believes the bill is "fair and necessary."
The minister stressed that companies need to get more leeway regarding their work organization to be able to adapt to business booms and off-peak periods.
Hollande also insisted in a speech Tuesday that the bill is a "fair compromise" that "provides businesses the visibility and the adaptation they need."
A group of Socialist rebels has announced its intention to abstain from voting on the text, which it considers as diminishing workers' rights.
Socialist lawmaker Christian Paul, a leading member of the rebel group, told journalists "either we substantially rewrite the text ... or the government blocks the debate and in that case, we will abstain."
The bill technically maintains the 35-hour workweek, but allows companies to organize alternative working times, up to a 48-hour workweek and 12 hours per day. In case of "exceptional circumstances," employees could work up to 60 hours a week.
France's main business lobby, the Medef, initially supported the bill but now regrets the changes that have been made by the government.
"In its current state, the bill will not create jobs, so lawmakers must rectify it and make it closer to its initial version," Medef President Pierre Gattaz said on RTL radio.
Lawmakers from the right and the left have proposed a total of 5,000 amendments that will be discussed in coming days. The vote at the National Assembly is scheduled for May 19.