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World

Demonstrators In France Protest Labor Law Changes

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's listen for a moment to the sounds on the streets of Paris yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTS)

MONTAGNE: Those are anarchists battling police in protest against an unpopular labor law. Those protests are in their second month. Workers across several industries are walking off the job this week in protest against the government's labor reform bill. Truckers blocking roads, dockers blocking ports - today, rail workers joined the fray. We join NPR's Eleanor Beardsley at the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, one of the city's main terminals. And Eleanor, what is going on that you're looking at?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee. Well, actually, it's pretty calm compared to the streets. About a third of the suburban trains are canceled. And - so this is a station where people come into Paris to work. People are standing up looking at boards. Agents are helping them. People are annoyed, but they're kind of used to this, I have to say, strikes in France. So they find ways to get around it.

MONTAGNE: Well, break down for us what this strike is all about.

BEARDSLEY: Well, Renee, the president wants to reduce unemployment. And he said France's overly rigid labor code, which really makes it so that workers cannot be fired - he wants to allow companies to more easily lay off workers, which, in turn, will allow them to hire workers more easily. But people don't see the connection. Once you are hired on a permanent job contract in France, it is very hard to be fired. So he is trying to break that cycle and make the labor market more fluid.

About 60 percent of the French people, polls show, oppose this labor reform. I spoke with an economist actually here at the train station who was late to work because his train was canceled, Jean-Louis Dodier (ph). He says the reform will go through, but it won't be easy.

JEAN-LOUIS DODIER: There is no other solution than to be more fluent as regard to labor market. But I think, like usual, it will be done. But it will take time in France. It's like this.

BEARDSLEY: Renee, he says it's like this in France. And it does seem to be. Every time the president wants to overhaul labor codes, or, you know, increase the retirement age, people just pour out into the streets.

MONTAGNE: Well, it is true that the labor laws there very much protect workers. So what is at stake in this situation?

BEARDSLEY: Well, this is really a standoff. And it's a last chance for Hollande. He said, when he was elected, I will not run again in 2017 - and that's next year - unless unemployment is reduced. And so far, it's not. So this is his last-ditch attempt to do that.

But what's different this time is workers are protesting one of their own. He was elected from the left. And now the whole left wing of the party doesn't like him. And the people are out in the streets. Protests every day - they say they will not back down until the law is withdrawn. So he's sort of damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. But train workers say they'll protest every week until it's withdrawn. So we're really going to a huge standoff between the president and the people.

MONTAGNE: Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley speaking to us from the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.