By Brian Love
PARIS (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris under heavy police presence on Tuesday to demonstrate their discontent over changes to labor law that will make hiring and firing easier and give employers more say in work and pay negotiations.
The protest was the latest in President Francois Hollande's four-month confrontation with the unions, which has divided the governing Socialists and dragged the unpopular leader's ratings to new lows 10 months before a presidential election.
It took place a day before Prime Minister Manuel Valls meets leaders of the hardline CGT and Force Ouvriere (FO) unions, which want the government to scrap parts of a labor bill that Valls and Hollande say is needed to tackle a 10 percent unemployment rate.
"If the government is not going to give ground it will be a meeting for nothing," said FO chief Jean-Claude Mailly.
"I hope we're not just being invited for coffee," CGT leader Philippe Martinez told reporters.
Crowds of protesters marched in Marseille, Rennes and other cities but the Paris march took place under additional security with 2,500 riot police deployed with instructions to search bags for weapons and arrest would-be troublemakers on the spot.
Police fired tear gas early in the march to disperse a small number of masked youths who tried to vandalize a bus shelter.
Valls has accused the CGT of ignoring violence at previous protests where hundred of black-clad youths hurled stones and smashed shopfronts in running battles with police who have responded with water cannon and teargas.
The government banned a march last Thursday, citing security risks, but backed down to let it go ahead on a revised route.
In a bid to prevent a repeat of the intense violence of earlier protests, metal fences were erected along Tuesday's route. Police had orders to arrest anyone attempting to hide their faces in clothing or to bring in weapons.
The government appears keen to lower tension with the unions leading protests that appear to be losing steam even if French voters still broadly oppose the reforms.
One of the most contentious issues is Article 2 of the bill. This would give firms more freedom to negotiate working conditions without referring upwards to branch-level agreements. Unions say that will weaken worker leverage but the government argues that it will actually help build better grassroots representation.
Officials at Valls' office said the government's refusal to rewrite the bill had not changed ahead of this week's meeting.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Gerard Bon; Editing by Richard Balmforth)