French protesters in last-ditch bid to undo labour law

Paris (AFP) - Opponents of France's controversial labour reforms took to the streets Thursday for the 14th time in six months in a last-ditch bid to quash the measures that lost the Socialist government crucial support on the left.

Scores of flights in and out of France were cancelled as air traffic controllers went on strike to try to force the government to repeal the changes that became law in July.

Demonstrations were planned in towns and cities nationwide, but the movement appeared to be running out of steam.

Trade unions admitted that turnout would likely be lower than at the mass rallies in the spring but vowed to continue opposing the law which makes it easier to hire and fire people and for bosses to negotiate directly with employees on working time.

"We will show them that, law or no law, we will always stand against them," Francois Roche, a member of the hardline CGT union demonstrating in Marseille, told AFP.

One of the focal points of Thursday's protests was the eastern city of Belfort where the government is locked in a battle with train-building giant Alstom over the future of a locomotive factory threatened with closure.

Belfort's history is intertwined with that of Alstom, which produced its first steam train there in 1880. The plant now assembles high-speed TGV train locomotives.

Last week, Alstom had announced it would close the plant due to a lack of orders and move production to a site 200 kilometres (120 miles) to the north.

Hundreds of demonstrators chanting "Alstom is Belfort, Belfort is Alstom" took part in a march from the plant Thursday over the move.

The prospect of up to 400 job losses is a headache for French President Francois Hollande, with parliamentary and presidential elections just eight months away.

- Signature Socialist reform -

Aviation authorities had advised airlines serving Paris airports to cancel 15 percent of their flights Thursday due to the air traffic controllers strike.

Irish low-cost airline Ryanair said it had cancelled scores of flights to or through France.

Postal and railway workers were also called on to down tools but the disruptions in those areas seemed to be minimal.

The new labour law -- one of the few major reforms of Hollande's tenure -- aims to bring down France's unemployment rate of around 10 percent by making nation's notoriously rigid labour laws more flexible.

After months of sometimes violent protests, the measures were adopted after being watered down.

But such was the opposition on the left, including from within the Socialists' own ranks, the government had to force through the reforms without a vote, causing a deep divide within the ruling party.

Opponents see the measures as weighted in favour of employers and an erosion of workers' hard-won collective bargaining rights.

However the protests have fizzled in recent months, falling from hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in March to just 35,000 during the last rallies in early July.

Many of the demonstrations were scarred by clashes between protesters and riot police.

The violence peaked on June 14, just four days after the start of the Euro 2016 football championships in France, when around 40 people were hurt and dozens arrested.

CGT leader Philippe Martinez has vowed to continue the fight in the country's courts and at the individual company level.

Workers, he said, should continue "fighting tooth and nail to stop it (the law) crossing the threshold."

Hollande, who has yet to announce whether he will seek re-election next year, had hoped for a signature reform to boost his dire approval ratings.

Polls currently show around four out of five French people are opposed to him standing for a second term.