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Labor law and transport worker protests hit France

Strikes and protests have been held in France against the government's planned labor reforms. On the same day, a transport strike for better conditions kept many workers from traveling to work.

Thousands of students and workers turned out to protest government labor policies and to call for better working conditions on Wednesday.

The students threw eggs and firecrackers as they marched in Paris. Referring to Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri, some chanted: "El Khomri, you're beat, the youth are in the street."

Many schools around France were blocked as protesters expressed their opposition to the labor reforms they believe will make their futures more uncertain. One student, 21-year-old Lucie Ferreira, told the AFP news agency: "This law is absurd: night work, abusive firings... it is distressing to see this, especially from the Socialists."

The socialist government of President Francois Hollande has said the changes are in the students' favor and will help to bring down a record 10.2 percent rate of unemployment.

On the eve of the protests, Hollande said: "We must also give companies the opportunity to recruit more, to give job security to young people throughout their lives, and to provide flexibility for companies."

The planned law includes giving companies more flexibility in hiring and firing staff and cuts in overtime pay for work of more than 35 hours per week. Under the new law, should companies report falling orders or sales, these would be sufficient cause for shedding staff.

Technically, the new law maintains a 35-hour workweek, but it allows companies to organize alternative working times without following industry-wide deals - up to a 48-hour workweek and 12 hours per day. In "exceptional circumstances," employees could work up to 60 hours a week.

Opposition

An online petition against the bill, called the "Khomri law" after Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri, has attracted more than 1 million signatures. One poll showed seven in 10 people were opposed to the proposed changes.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday kicked off three days of talks with unions in a bid to salvage the law. The opposition has derailed a plan to submit the proposals to the cabinet this week. There are presidential elections in 2017.

A 20-year-old history student protesting in Paris commented: "Like many students I work to pay for my studies. This law will prevent me from limiting my work hours," she said. "When will I have time to study? This law is completely irrational. In reality, nobody really works 35 hours a week anymore: it is 40 or more to make a living. How much will it end up being with this law?"

Transport strike

Coinciding with the student protests was the largest transport strike in nearly three years. It was the first time since June 2013 that all four rail unions joined the same protest.

Frankreich Streik Bahngesellschaft SNCF

SNCF staff give advice for commuters at a Paris rail station

The SNCF national railway operator said just over one in three of its workers had joined the strike.

There were hundreds of kilometers of traffic jams by early Wednesday morning, with drivers advised it could take at least two hours to travel 13 kilometers. Rail companies advised passengers to delay any non-urgent travel.

Mainline trains were canceled, and only 30 to 50 percent of normal rail services were operating during the day:

Transport workers are demanding the recruitment of more staff, a rise in wages and guarantees about improvements in working conditions.

The strike, which began on Tuesday evening, will run until Thursday 8 a.m. (0700 UTC). More rallies are scheduled for the end of the month, with unions saying Wednesday's protests were just "a warm-up."

About 20 percent of Eurostar trains between Paris and London were expected to have been canceled by the end of the strike. Only a third of fast, TGV services were operating out of Paris to the north of the country and the Atlantic coast. There was a similar reduction of services in the south as protesters joined in rallies.

International services to Italy and Spain were also affected.

jm/jil (AFP, Reuters)

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