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French workers flex muscles

Jospin's government is introducing labour reforms
Jospin's government is introducing labour reforms  

PARIS, France -- Many of France's major cities have been crippled by workers protesting against mass job cuts and calling for improved rights.

One of the worst demonstrations held across the country on Tuesday was in Paris where police fired tear gas to break up a protest outside the French parliament.

Scuffles erupted when police chased several hundred protesters away from the National Assembly ahead of a debate on labour reforms.

The debate and protest follow a spate of company redundancy announcements, by the likes of yoghurt giant Danone and British retailer Marks & Spencer, that have sparked an outcry in France.

Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government has attacked the sackings as sacrificing employee rights at the altar of "shareholder value."

It says it wants to introduce new laws providing workers with greater protection.

Marks & Spencer has been especially heavily criticised in France for the way it announced a decision to close its mainland Europe branches.

Some of the 3,000 staff affected said they learned of the move by e-mail or from television.

Jospin's government is resisting pressure from its Green and Communist coalition allies for tougher measures, including an all-out ban on redundancies by profitable firms.

"We cannot ban redundancies, be it with administrative or legal means because that would damage jobs in the short and medium term," said Labour Minister Elisabeth Guigou.

But CGT trade union chief Bernard Thibault said: "(Staff) should have the right to contest the economic logic of these redundancies, particularly in companies making huge profits."

Measures under discussion inside the parliament include requiring firms to consult worker representatives more closely before making decisions that could affect jobs, and committing firms in some sectors to continuous retraining of staff.

With elections less than a year away, the government can ill-afford to ignore the working class vote, and Guigou's ministry announced additional measures to beef up the bill just ahead of its second reading in parliament.

The new clauses would legally oblige firms to examine how employees could be found new work when a company restructures its operations.

They would also increase the compensation that had to be awarded to people ultimately made redundant.

Transport strike

Elsewhere, bus and subway services were disrupted by a one-day strike by public transportation workers demanding the right to retire at 55 instead of 60.

In Marseille, France's second-largest city, only a dozen out of 400 city buses were running. There were no trams and subway services were reduced.

There was no bus service in the northern cities of Lille and Valenciennes.

Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse, and Nice were among the other cities affected by the strike, which did not affect Paris where transport workers already have the right to retire at 55.

Workers and management have met on several occasions to discuss employees' demands but have been unable to reach an agreement.

Managers say that lowering the retirement age risks pushing up costs.

• French Government
• CGT Union

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