French protest threat to 35-hour week

French union members protested throughout the country today at the government's latest effort to encourage people to work more than the standard 35-hour week.

Strikes by civil servants, including rail employees, teachers and public transport workers, did not appear to cause major disruptions.

France's 35-hour working week was created 10 years ago by a Socialist-led government, but conservative governments have since chipped away at the legislation.

Tomorrow President Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet will discuss the latest attempt to encourage longer hours. Under the new proposal, the statutory limit on working hours will be retained but companies will be able negotiate opt-outs with employees. The measure has yet to go before parliament.

The demonstrations were called by the two biggest French unions, CGT and CFDT. CFDT leader Francois Chereque complained that the government did not take union concerns into account.

"We are in an era of unilateral decisions, political decisions, and not dialogue," he said.

Laurent Wauquiez, junior minister for employment, said the government would not back down.

Unions called marches in 124 cities and towns across France to protest the reform, as well as a plan to make workers stay on the job for 41 years, instead of the current 40, to qualify for full retirement benefits.

However, unions have been divided on tactics for negotiating with the government, and many were not taking part in the demonstrations.

In Paris, several thousand people marched from the Place de la Bastille. In the southern port city of Marseille, organisers said 60,000 people demonstrated, while police put the figure at a mere 3,000.

About a third of cafeterias in Marseille's schools were closed, as were a third of the city's day care centers. Nationwide, fewer than 3% of public school staff stayed off the job, the Education Ministry said.

Some trains were disrupted in southern France, as were a few Paris suburban train lines. The Paris Metro operated as normal.

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