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French PM says he will not bow to labour reform protestors

[PARIS] French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is determined not to join a long list of politicians who have conceded defeat to protesters, he told the Journal Du Dimanche (JDD) newspaper, as the government prepares to dig in its heels on labour reform.

The hardline CGT union has organised street protests, train strikes and refinery blockades to pressure the government to scrap plans that would make it easier for companies to hire and fire workers. "If we gave in to the street and to CGT because we were obsessed over the short term by 2017 (presidential elections), we would lose everything," Mr Valls was quoted as saying by the French newspaper.

In the mid-1990s Prime Minister Alain Juppe triggered France's worst unrest in decades because he would not budge on pension reform but he eventually backed down after weeks of industrial action and protests.

The government is under pressure to find a solution to the latest stand-off before the June 10 start of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament in France, which the CGT has threatened to disrupt.

Finance Minister Michel Sapin emphasised the government's stance. "First and foremost we must be firm," Mr Sapin said in an interview with Reuters and three European newspapers. "Doing otherwise would be wrong with respect to (other) labour unions, most of whom support the text." The more moderate CFDT union backs proposed reform that will allow businesses to lay off staff more easily in hard times but also give unions more power to negotiate unilateral deals with companies rather than national collective agreement.

Mr Sapin said he agreed with the tough stance taken by Mr Valls and that he had been misunderstood when he told LCP television last week that it might be possible to tweak the part of the draft bill that would let companies opt out of national obligations on labour protection if they adopt in-house deals on pay and conditions with the consent of a majority of employees.

For all the tough talk, however, another minister said that the government could not let the Euro 2016 tournament be disrupted because it would be bad for France's image.

One option could be for lawmakers to tweak the bill when it returns to the lower house of parliament for a second reading, the minister said, speaking on condition of anonymity The government pushed the bill through the lower house with a decree, bypassing the first reading. The final vote is expected in July.

REUTERS