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New clashes in France at demos over labour reforms

[PARIS] French riot police fired teargas and stun grenades Thursday during clashes in Paris with opponents of labour reforms who threw molotov cocktails, the latest outbreak of violence over the controversial new laws.

At least one demonstrator and five police were injured - including one officer with burns - as thousands rallied against the law forced through by the Socialist government in July after months of often violent protests.

Twelve people were arrested in the capital, where around 13,000 people took part in the rally against measures aimed at loosening France's notoriously rigid employment laws, the 14th such demonstrations in six months.

A demonstration in the western city of Nantes also turned violent, with police there using tear gas and water cannon against protesters.

Scores of flights in and out of France were cancelled as air traffic controllers went on strike to protest the law that makes it easier to fire workers during downturns 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.

The turnout nationwide was however far lower than at the start of the rallies six months ago, when they brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.

One of the focal points Thursday 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 marched through the city, chanting "Alstom is Belfort, Belfort is Alstom".

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

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

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

Opponents see the measures as an erosion of workers' hard-won collective bargaining rights.

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

The violence unleashed by the reforms 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 appealed Thursday to workers to continue "fighting tooth and nail to stop it (the law) crossing the threshold" of their companies.

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.