French unions win right to protest despite fears of violence

AP News
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Posted: Jun 22, 2016 9:53 AM
French unions win right to protest despite fears of violence

PARIS (AP) — The French government and unions reached a compromise Wednesday allowing a new labor march in Paris, amid heightened political tensions and security fears after recent protest violence injured dozens and damaged a renowned children's hospital.

The debate about the protest march planned for Thursday had taken on national importance, echoing a larger battle raging for months over a government bill rethinking France's cherished but costly worker protections.

Paris police on Wednesday banned the protest, saying they could not ensure safety. Leftist lawmakers and union members threatened to defy the ban, condemning the move as a violation of the people's right to protest.

The interior minister met with union leaders, who emerged announcing a compromise deal for a march around the Bastille neighborhood that will be much shorter than originally planned.

It's part of protests around France and a one-day strike Thursday against a bill that makes it easier to lay off employees, extends the work week and weakens union powers.

The bill has prompted months of protests that often degenerate into violence by small groups of extremist demonstrators clashing with tear gas-spraying riot police.

The last big Paris protest, which passed through the Montparnasse and Invalides neighborhoods on June 14, was particularly violent, with at least 39 people injured and damage to dozens of shops, banks, bus stops, a nursery school and a government ministry — and the Necker Hospital for Sick Children, where windows of operating rooms were smashed.

Ahead of Thursday's march, Paris authorities asked protest organizers to hold a stationary rally instead of a march through the capital, so that police could better isolate troublemakers.

The CGT union, which has been leading the protest movement, refused a stationary march. The ban announcement Wednesday may have forced the unions to a shorter compromise route.

"It's always better when we communicate" in person, CGT leader Philippe Martinez said after meeting Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. Martinez told reporters later that unions would have extra security protecting their marchers but said it was up to police to stop troublemakers.

Cazeneuve said the compromise aims to help the police make the march safe. "No burst of violence will be tolerated", Cazeneuve said.

The labor strife has divided the Socialist government and further weakened President Francois Hollande.

The government softened the labor bill in response to some union demands but then forced it through the lower house of Parliament without a vote because of resistance from the party's hard-left flank. The move further angered protesters.

The bill is now being debated in the conservative-controlled Senate, with a vote scheduled on June 28. The law will then need to be discussed again in the lower house of Parliament, which has final say on its approval.