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France faces new protests Thursday as workers, youth fall out with Hollande government

Actors and theatre and film technicians protest at the théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris on Tuesday
Actors and theatre and film technicians protest at the théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris on Tuesday Reutrs/Charles Platiau

France's Socialist government faces a fourth day of nationwide protests against its proposed labour reform on Thursday, as entertainment workers occupy theatres over changes to their unemployment benefits and Up All Night protests continue in several cities. Despite good news on the employment front, President François Hollande's administration faces growing opposition from the left, its traditional base of support.

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Thursday will see a fourth day of protests and strikes against Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri's proposed labour law, accepted after some watering-down by a few trade unions but not the militant CGT and Sud or students' and school students' organisations.

The country's economic life is unlikely to suffer major damage but thousands are expected to demonstrate in France's major cities and the law will also come under fire on traditional marches on 1 May, international workers' day.

Up All Night protests try to join up with rail and theatre workers

According to some of those behind the Nuit Debout (Up All Night) protests, which have seen night-time sit-ins in Paris's Place de la République and about a dozen provincial cities, 1 May should be the occasion for that movement to hook up with organised labour.

Railworkers have already visited the Paris Nuit Debout to discuss their current dispute with the government, which led to a well-supported strike on Tuesday over plans to level down working conditions as part of opening the network up to competition.

And Nuit Debout supporters have joined actors and theatre and film technicians, who have occupied Paris's Odéon theatre since Sunday with five other provincial theatres occupied since and a show cancelled at Paris's Comédie Française on Tuesday evening.

Negotiations over an expensive scheme that guarantees generous unemployment pay to the "intermittents", as they are known, resumed on Wednesday afternoon with El Khomri promising to maintain it, despite plans to cut 185 million euros from its budget between now and 2018.

Ministers have been conciliatory towards the all-night protests - one of them, Axelle Lemaire, who is in charge of digital technology, visiting Place de la République on Sunday incognito to try to "understand the demonstrators' aspirations".

Empty heads and dope-smoking

The same cannot be said of the right.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday called them "people with empty heads" who want to "give lessons in democracy to the republic", while far-right politician Marion Maréchal Le Pen categorised them as a bunch of dope-smoking schoolkids and far-leftists.

Socialist face opposition from left

Polls show Hollande as the least popular president in modern French history and what must be worrying his supporters is not so much the hatred of the right as the disenchantment of the left.

A poll published in Le Monde newspaper today showed 65 per cent of Socialist supporters feeling that their ideas are not really represented in modern French democracy.

That has meant a series of setbacks for the Socialists in elections but what has changed this year is the willingness of organised labour and youth to take to the streets, especially worrying for the Socialists if they look at the collapse in support for their counterparts in countries like Greece and Spain, where new left-wing parties have come from virtually nowhere to become decisive national players.

There is no sign of that in France at the moment, although the Nuit Debout protesters have not ruled out forming a party.

Hollande's supporters try to revive flagging support

But Hollande's supporters are sufficiently rattled to launch an offensive to revive the president's popularity.

Called "Hé Oh La Gauche!" (Hey, the left) it aims to "mobilise and defend our achievements", government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll told its first meeting on Monday night.

Tuesday's unemployment figures brought good news - the bigest drop for 15 years - and ministers predict thousands of jobs will be created by a submarine contract with Australia, but the ruling Socialist Party, itself facing dissidence in the ranks, will have its work cut out to revive its and its president's fortunes.

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