French police fire tear gas at labor reform protesters

September 15, 2016 6:06 AM EDT

General view of French trade union employees who march with banners during a demonstration against plans to reform French labour laws in Marseille, France, July 5, 2016. REUTERS/Philippe Laurenson

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By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - Riot police fired tear gas and water cannon at protesters marching on Thursday in France against labor reforms in what unions say will likely be the last demonstrations to try to overturn the law.

Scuffles broke out in cities including Paris, Nantes, Toulouse, Rennes, Grenoble and Montpellier, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Hooded youths hurled bottles, beer cans and on occasion makeshift firebombs on the fringes of marches against the law that will make hiring and firing easier.

As turnout fades after six months of protests, the head of the Force Ouvriere union signaled that the focus of opposition would now shift to legal challenges against the application of the new law, and that street marches were at an end.

"We are lifting our foot off the pedal for now. We are not going to do this every week," Jean-Claude Mailly told reporters at a rally in Paris's Place de la Bastille square.

Seven months from a presidential election, Mailly said that the unions would not let Socialist President Francois Hollande and his government off the hook.

"This law will be the chewing gum that sticks to the soles of the government's shoes," he told France 2 public television.

Mailly and Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, said they hoped legal challenges would force the withdrawal of the new law. They intend to challenge application decrees that will spell out exactly how the law applies on the ground.

The new law, forced through parliament in July, is designed to make France's protective labor laws more flexible, in part by allowing firms to tailor pay and work terms to their needs more easily.

Martinez said the law could be exploited by employers to trim overtime pay from a 25 percent markup to 10 percent.

At their peak, the street protests brought close to 400,000 people into the streets last March but turnout has waned over time and was in the low thousands in most cities on Thursday according to early readouts from police.

Police said between 12,500 and 13,500 marched in Paris.

Some 62 people were arrested across the country, the Interior Ministry said. Fifteen gendarmes and police officers were injured, including two who were hospitalized.

The government hopes the law will help lower a jobless rate stuck close to 10 percent.

Unions say it will undermine high standards of labor protection as well as their ability to represent workers, notably in small firms where it will give employers more muscle to strike lower-standard deals on issues such as overtime pay.

(Additional reporting by Simon Carraud, Claude Canellas and Jean-Francois Rosnoblet and Bate Felix; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Alison Williams)

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