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In Photos: Tear Gas, Blood, and Molotov Cocktails in Central Paris

On Tuesday, one of France's largest and most hardline trade unions staged a mass demonstration in central Paris, against a labor-reform law. Things turned ugly fast.

by Katie Engelhart
Jun 15 2016, 8:50am

Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News

In June 1848, revolutionary workers in Paris staged a now-famous uprising. Their cause: a lack of opportunity for honest work and decent pay in the French capital.

Near the end of that month, thousands of young men took to the streets in the 'June Days Uprising.' They armed themselves and made makeshift barricades. They attacked the National Guard officers sent to maintain order. In the end, when it was all over, tens of thousands were killed and injured — and thousands more were deported to Algeria.

Nearly 168 years later to the day, French workers again stormed central Paris, to an altogether less bloody outcome. On Tuesday, thousands of trade union members and supporters held a demonstration in Paris's 13th quarter: against a new labor reform package meant to make the French economy more modern and "flexible."

All photos by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News.

The afternoon saw packs of protesters hurling stones at police officers and smashing storefront windows. It also saw cops fire dozens of volleys of teargas and use a water cannon to break up several groups of black-clad protesters.

VICE News saw demonstrators lob Molotov cocktails at police officers, a number of whom caught fire for a few seconds. Several hours into the march, a man with blood pouring from a gash above his eye was led away by police; his white T-shirt was soaked red.

According to union organizers, nearly one million people protested on Paris streets on Tuesday — though this figure is more than ten times the official estimate of 75,000. Officials say that at least 40 people were injured in the clashes and that around 60 were arrested.

The protest comes at an exceedingly tense moment in France. The country has been under a state of emergency since the November 2015 terror attacks. On top of that, hundreds of thousands of soccer fans have descended on France for the 2016 European Championships — and some 13,000 private security guards have been brought into Paris to keep match sites secure.

French Sports Minister Patrick Kanner recently accused the hardline CGT union and other unions of "spoiling the image of France."

Across town, the Eiffel Tower was shuttered, because site operators were unable to guarantee the safety of visitors.

"Everyone hates the police!" "The police hate everyone!" demonstrators chanted, as the procession moved its way north.

"We have had an authoritarian backlash that has characterised this government, especially within the framework of the state of emergency," Jean, a 20-something student who only gave his first name, told VICE News. He said he had come to the march as a union sympathizer — and as someone increasingly worried about police violence. Jean said that at a recent student protest, his friend had her ribs cracked by a cop who kicked her while she lay on the ground.

Other protesters spoke of an encroachment of civil liberties by French authorities, in the wake of the November terror attacks. The state of emergency imposed after the attacks grants broader power to French police — including the power to conduct raids of private homes without warrants. Shortly before Tuesday's demonstration, Paris police proactively banned 130 known troublemakers from the rally.

The demonstration follows months of sustained strikes in and around Paris, and was expected to be the largest such display in months. Several unions opposed to the government's labor reforms — including the 700,000-member CGT — urged their members to walk out of their jobs. More than 500 buses carried out-of-town protesters to the capital, according to CGT officials.

At particular issue is the so-called loi travail: a labor-reform law that the government forced through parliament without a vote back in March. The proposed law, which goes before the French Senate this week and which President François Hollande hopes to codify in law by July, would make it easier for private employers to hire and fire people. It would also threaten France's sacred 35-hour workweek, allowing employers to extend overtime hours and cut overtime pay.

Union organizers say the reform is a sell-out to management. The government says it's needed to make France's notoriously rigid labor force more flexible. A rigid workplace, say reform proponents, makes French enterprises wary of hiring permanent workers and thus stalls economic growth.

France's unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, and nearly one in four young people under 25 are unemployed. Around 85 per cent of new hires in France are placed on short-term, precarious contracts.

The Senate has limited powers over the labor reform package, but it has the ability to ratify, or not ratify, individual articles. The Senate has until June 28th to debate the new legislation. CGT union leader Philippe Martinez predicts an "enormous" protest to coincide with the Senate's final vote.

Additional reporting by Pierre Longeray.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart

Follow Etienne Rouillon on Twitter: @rouillonetienne

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray

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