French dock workers set off smoke bombs as protests escalate

Thousands of dock workers took to the streets of French port city Le Havre, setting off smoke bombs as part of escalating nationwide protests against a labour bill that would loosen protections for French workers.

French dock city of Le Havre saw increasing numbers of workers joining protests against new bill. Picture: AP

As union activists disrupted fuel supplies, trains and nuclear plants during a day of demonstrations around the country, French prime minister Manuel Valls opened the door to possible changes but said the government would not abandon the bill, which would make the country’s 35-hour work week more flexible, among other provisions.

The draft law, aimed at boosting hiring after a decade of nearly 10 per cent unemployment and slow economic decline, has escalated into the toughest challenge yet to President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government.

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“There could be improvements and modifications” in the bill, Valls said on BFM television yesterday. He didn’t elaborate on what might be changed, and insisted that the “heart” of the bill – a measure weakening the power of unions over workplace rules – should remain. Withdrawing the bill “is not possible”.

Meanwhile, a man with extremist links was briefly holed up inside a Paris home near a march expected to draw thousands of labour protesters in the capital.

Paris police say a doctor who arrived at the home to take the man to a psychiatric hospital sounded the alarm.

French media said the man was believed to have a knife and a tear gas bomb before police overpowered him. The stand-off took place about a block from the Bastille, where a labour march was due to start.

Members of the CGT union, leading the protests, said it’s too late to compromise. Many remain angry that the government forced the bill through the lower house of parliament without a vote.

Fabien Gloaguen, an activist with the militant Worker’s Forcemovement, said the government would have to back down. “He’s going to withdraw it,” Gloaguen said.

Valls insisted the bill is “good for workers” and small businesses, and argued that many critics are ill-informed of its contents.