France vows 'no retreat' from labor reforms amid growing unrest
PARIS — France's government vowed "no retreat" from planned labor law reforms Thursday even as unions called for wider strikes that have choked off fuel supplies and created chaos on highways blocked by barricades of burning tires.
Even in a country long familiar with labor protests that flare and then fizzle, the current standoff is rooted in a deep ideological battle that shows no easy path to resolve.
Union members overwhelmingly oppose President François Hollande's new labor law, which would relax some of France's famous worker protections - among the strictest in the world - in order to curb unemployment and stimulate economic growth.
The government has offered no hint of compromise as the country struggles with unemployment over 10 percent and near historical highs.
"What are the alternatives? A withdrawal of the text? That's impossible," Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on RMC radio.
He said some "modifications" could be considered, but stood firm on the overall objectives. He also took aim at the labor federation leading the protests, saying it "does not makes the law in this country."
"There will be no retreat," he said.
The head of the General Confederation of Labor, a prominent French union, was equally firm. "It's inadmissible," Arnaud Pacot told BFM television at a nuclear plant occupied by workers.
French workers have prevailed before. Similar waves of protests in the past successfully halted a government plan to cut the French pension system in an effort to curb its spending deficit.
In addition to fuel shortages, which that have created huge lines at gas stations, the unions have also called for nationwide strikes in the public transportation sector, including air traffic controllers and at many of the 19 nuclear plants that provide electricity for much of the country.
One year before France's presidential election, the proposed changes have become the most fraught chapter in the exceedingly unpopular presidency of Hollande and his Socialist government. With approval ratings below 20 percent, Hollande is the least popular president in modern French history.
His administration has lost the support even of its own traditional constituents. The public outrage over the government's labor reforms - the most vocal in recent memory - comes mostly from the political left, such as union leaders, who feel betrayed by a government supporting an initiative they consider pro-business.
The sentiment is shared by the hundreds of thousands of other protesters - mostly students and young workers - who have taken to the streets since the labor law plan was introduced in late March.
The tumult raises the possibility that Hollande may not be chosen to run for re-election in 2017, which would be the first time in more than 50 years that a first-term incumbent was not tapped to pursue a second term.
At present, there is little incentive for compromise on either side.
Earlier this month, the government pushed the law through parliament. It moves to the French Senate on June 13. Protests could grow until then, when France will have already begun hosting the Euro 2016 soccer tournament.
Many are concerned that the disruptions to fuel supplies - and possibly even electricity - could affect the tournament, a major sporting event with millions of viewers that will place France, yet again, in the international spotlight.