French railway, port workers strike

Unions push back against labour reform laws

PARIS (Reuters) - Strikes by French railway and port workers halved train services and prompted cancellation of ferry links to Britain on Wednesday as labour unions sought to force President Francois Hollande's government into retreat on labour law reforms.

After weeks of protests in which hundreds of them have been hurt, police planned a demonstration of their own to vent frustration over the stresses produced by near daily clashes with gangs of violent youths on the fringes of the anti-reform movement.

Wednesday's rail strikes, set to run until Friday morning, reduced high-speed and inter-city services by 40 to 50 per cent, also heavily disrupting local and suburban commuter lines, the SNCF state railway company said.

Brittany Ferries announced mass cancellations of connections between Britain and northern France, where port workers joined the industrial action.

Truckers maintained blockades set up on Tuesday in a bid to strangle deliveries in and out of fuel and food distribution depots.

At issue is one of Hollande's flagship reforms a year from a presidential election, law changes designed to make it easier for employers to hire and fire staff and to opt out of cumbersome national rules in favour of in-house accords on pay.

Hollande's government says the change will encourage firms to recruit and combat an unemployment that has remained above 10 per cent.

The Socialist leader has said he will not consider running for re-election if he fails to make inroads against joblessness but critics say the reform will totally undermine the standards of protection enshrined for decades in national labour law.

The plan, opposed by three in four French people, according to pollsters, has provoked weeks of often violent demonstrations and added strains on police who were already stretched by extra security duties in the wake of last November's deadly Islamist attacks on France.

Condemning what it described as mounting "anti-cop hatred", the Alliance police union called for a midday Wednesday rally in Paris's Place de la Republique, scene of regular skirmishes in past weeks between police and youths hurling petrol bombs and paving stones.

Paris police chief Michel Cadot banned a counter-protest by a group that accuses the police of brutality.

Further strikes and protests are planned for the rest of the week in what labour unions and other opponents hope will prove a big enough show of force to make Hollande reconsider.

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