By Brian Love
PARIS (Reuters) – Strikes by French railway and port workers halved train services and prompted cancellation of ferry links to Britain on Wednesday as labor unions sought to force President Francois Hollande’s government into retreat on labor law reforms.
After weeks of protests in which hundreds of their number have been hurt, police held a rally of their own to vent frustration over the stresses of near daily clashes with violent youths on the fringes of the anti-reform movement.
As they did so, a crowd chanting “police everywhere, justice nowhere” surrounded a police patrol car, which went up in flames after the police officers inside fled the scene, a few hundred meters from where their colleagues were rallying.
The public prosecutor’s office said after the incident it was opening an inquiry into attempted homicide.
Wednesday’s rail strikes, set to run until Friday morning, reduced high-speed and inter-city services by 40 to 50 percent, also heavily disrupting local and suburban commuter lines, the SNCF state railway company said.
Strike turnout, the SNCF said, was about 15 percent, lower than in previous stoppages.
Brittany Ferries announced mass cancellations of connections between Britain and northern France, where port workers joined the industrial action.
Truckers maintained blockades set up on Tuesday in a bid to strangle deliveries in and out of fuel and food distribution depots.
At issue is one of Hollande’s flagship reforms a year from a presidential election – law changes designed to make it easier for employers to hire and fire staff and to opt out of cumbersome national rules in favor of in-house accords on pay.
Hollande says the change will encourage firms to recruit and combat an unemployment rate that has remained above 10 percent.
The 61-year-old leader has said he will not consider running for re-election if he fails to make inroads against joblessness. Critics say the reform will totally undermine the standards of protection enshrined for decades in national labor law.
The plan, which pollsters say is opposed by three in four French people, has provoked weeks of often violent protests.
It has also increased pressure on police who were already stretched by extra duties following last November’s deadly militant Islamist attacks on France and are also gearing up for the Euro 2016 soccer tournament that kicks off on June 10.
Condemning what it described as mounting “anti-cop hatred”, the Alliance police union called for Wednesday’s rally in the Place de la Republique, a central Paris square that has seen regular skirmishes in past weeks between riot police and youths hurling petrol bombs and paving stones.
Paris police chief Michel Cadot banned a counter-protest by a group that accuses the police of brutality.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve defended the police and said 350 of them had been injured in standoffs that had produced 1,300 arrests in just two months.
Further strikes and protests are planned for the rest of the week in what labor unions, along with a youth protest movement called Nuit Debout or Night Rising, hope will prove a big enough show of force to make Hollande reconsider.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Bon; Editing by Andrew Callus and Gareth Jones)