Paris (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of French students and workers took to the streets in protest at labour reforms, heaping pressure on President Francois Hollande's already unpopular and fractured Socialist government.
The plan, aimed at boosting hiring, would remove some of the obstacles to laying off workers.
Young people were among the most vocal opponents to the measures they fear will make their future more uncertain, even though the government claims they are the age group it is most trying to help.
Teenagers and students threw eggs and firecrackers as they marched in Paris, directing their anger at Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, whose name is on the draft law.
The strikes were compounded by a rail strike for better working conditions that left many commuters stranded.
Several unions said up to half a million people took part in demonstrations across France, with the CGT union claiming 100,000 protested in Paris. Police put the national total at 224,000, with fewer than 30,000 in the main march in the east of the capital.
By promoting the reforms that would allow bosses more flexibility in hiring and firing, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has alienated a range of left-wing forces -- including within his own government.
"This law is absurd: night work, abusive firings... it is distressing to see this, especially from the Socialists," said Lucie Ferreira, 21, an IT student demonstrating in Paris.
The reforms aim to bring down unemployment of more than 10 percent, with youth joblessness nearer to 25 percent.
The proposed new law also cuts overtime pay for work beyond 35 hours -- the working week famously introduced in the 1990s in an earlier Socialist bid to boost employment. In some sectors, young apprentices could see working hours rise to 40 hours a week.
"Like many students, I work to pay for my studies. This law will prevent me from limiting my work hours," said Flora, 20, a history student among around 10,000 protesters at the Place de la Republique in Paris.
"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?"
An online petition against the draft law has attracted more than a million signatures, while a poll showed seven in 10 people oppose the planned changes.
Hollande, who campaigned on a promise to improve prospects for young people and faces a re-election bid next year, said during a Wednesday cabinet meeting that the government would remain open to dialogue but underscored that "adaptation" was needed.
"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," he said ahead of the protests.
- String of short-term contracts -
Many young people, including graduates, find themselves working on short-term contracts for several years after their studies, or doing internship after internship while hoping to secure a job.
Their situation contrasts with the cherished job security afforded by full-time contracts in France, which are fiercely defended by unions.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has held talks with unions this week in a bid to salvage the law, after the chorus of opposition derailed a plan to submit the proposals to the cabinet this week.
Supporters of the reforms believe they are essential to reviving a stagnant economy and creating jobs, and El Khomri has argued that much of the opposition to her law stems from misinformation and false rumours.
Outspoken Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday that as unemployment had not dropped below seven percent in 30 years, the government had no choice but to change the status quo.
"Have we tried everything? Let us look outside France. What has happened elsewhere? They have all evolved, they have all done things," he said.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose country has adopted similar reforms, said Tuesday after talks in Venice with Hollande that the French "should not be afraid of change."
French employers are reluctant to take on permanent workers because of obstacles to laying them off in lean times.
The reforms identify precise conditions such as falling orders or sales, or operating losses, as sufficient cause for shedding staff.