September 13, 2017 / 6:39 AM / 13 days ago

French PM shrugs off labour protests, truckers call strike

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas during a national strike and protest against the government's labour reforms in Nantes, France, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

PARIS (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has shrugged off nationwide protests against planned reforms to France’s strict labour regulations, saying on Wednesday he was “listening” but would nonetheless press ahead with the bill.

About 220,000 people on Tuesday joined the first mass protest called by the Communist Party-rooted CGT trade union against the reforms, a smaller number than in demonstrations last year.

However, in a sign that protests may yet gain momentum, truck drivers belonging to the CGT and Force Ouvriere, France’s second and third biggest unions respectively, said they would launch a rolling strike on Sept 25. Truckers have before brought large parts of France to a halt.

The government plans to adopt the decrees on Sept. 22.

“I am listening and I am paying attention. But let me state that the French, when they vote, also have a right to be treated with respect,” Philippe told France 2 television. “And the reform that we are putting in place was announced by the president at the time of his election.”

Labour unions have thwarted previous attempts by governments on the right and left to weaken France’s labour code. Macron’s administration spent weeks negotiating the proposals with union bosses over the summer.

The measures include a cap on payouts for dismissals judged unfair and greater freedom for companies to hire and fire. The reform makes no direct reference to the 35-hour week, a totem of the labour code, though it hands firms more flexibility to set pay and working conditions.

Demonstrators face off with French CRS riot police as they attend a national strike and protest against the government's labour reforms in Lyon, France, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Robert Pratta

The labour measures are seen in Berlin and other European capitals as a test of Macron’s mettle to enact further reforms -- including to the employment insurance and pension systems -- needed to help rein in France’s fiscal deficit and win German support for his broader euro zone reforms.

The head of Germany’s employers association, BDA, called for German employers and unions to be given more flexibility to agree on working conditions, in a column in business daily Handelsblatt.

Demonstrators run through a cloud of tear gas during a national strike and protest against the government's labour reforms in Nantes, France, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Ingo Kramer said Macron’s reform agenda “should be an incentive for us to tackle overdue reform projects over the next four years to ensure our productivity.”

At home, Macron inadvertently fuelled worker anger when he declared on a trip to Athens that he “would cede no ground to slackers, cynics and hardliners.”

The Elysee Palace said his comments were aimed at political leaders who had shirked ambitious reforms in the past, but union leaders and political opponents on the left accused him of treating workers with contempt.

Jerome Verite, secretary general of the CGT’s transport federation told Reuters the truckers’ strike would “last as long as necessary.”

“We’re headed for a social disaster. We want the government to reverse course on its decrees,” he said.

Reporting by Sophie Louet and Caroline Pailliez in Paris and Michael Nienaber in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Luke Baker and Robin Pomeroy

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