Over million demonstrators take to streets across France

Most labor law protests are peaceful, but students battle police in Paris


PARIS -- Students battled with police yesterday and commuters battled with widespread service disruptions as cities across France were hit with strikes and demonstrations against the government's attempt to reform youth labor laws.

For the most part, the demonstrations were peaceful, but at the Place de la Republique, in the center of Paris, riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators who attacked them with stones and bottles. Police made 787 arrests around France, 488 of them in Paris, National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said. In the capital, 46 demonstrators and nine police officers were injured.

According to police estimates, just over 1 million people joined the demonstrations in more than 70 cities. The organizers - trade unions and student unions - put the figure at 2.7 million.

Four thousand riot police were deployed across the capital, and businesses along the route of the march shuttered their shops early. A McDonald's restaurant - always a favorite target for French protesters - boarded up its plate glass windows at lunchtime.

There were delays on the Paris subways and buses as transit workers stayed home. Some commuters made it to work on bicycles or roller skates. Many just walked or took the day off. Most newspapers didn't print, and the Eiffel Tower was closed for the day.

Elsewhere, 200,000 protesters took to the streets in Marseille, according to organizers, and there were reports of minor scuffles between police and demonstrators in Rennes and Grenoble.

Leaders of France's powerful labor unions promised to keep up the one-day strikes until Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin withdraws the controversial reform.

In recent years, street protests have become a springtime rite of passage for students in France.

The barricades at the Sorbonne and other universities across France evoke memories of the 1968 student protests, but the similarities end there. The Class of' '68 wanted a revolution; the Class of '06 wants a secure job.

The point of contention is a new labor law called the First Employment Contract, which is set to take effect next month, that would allow businesses to dismiss new hires under the age of 26 without cause during the first two years of their employment.

The idea is to make it easier for employers to hire young people, but students see it as an attempt to dismantle the elaborate social welfare system that they take as their due.

"This government is doing everything it can to break down the benefits and social protections that the people have fought for over the years. They are trying to destroy the collective consensus," said Julien Pignon, 26, a law student at the Sorbonne who took part in the Paris protest.

"We don't believe the contract will create new jobs," Pignon said. "The companies will use it to hire people they would have had to hire anyway, and the workers will have less protection."

The jobless rate for people younger than 30 in France is 23 percent. Overall unemployment is 9.6 percent.

Most of the young people supporting the protests are from the middle classes, and beneath the bravado of the students at the barricades is a deep anxiety about the future.

In one frequently cited poll, young people in France were asked their reaction to globalization. Forty-eight percent replied "fear," only 27 percent said "hope." In another survey of young people, nearly 70 percent said that a secure job in the civil service is their preferred career path.

"It may seem strange to foreigners, but young people in France are very concerned about unemployment," said Bruno Jeanbart, a political analyst with the CSA polling organization.

"They are anxious that they might have an unstable job ... and they don't think about taking risks in their professional lives," he said.

One of the main problems, according to Jeanbart, is a system of free higher education that guarantees everyone with a high school diploma a place in a public university.

"Everybody has the right to a university education and the degree of his choice," Jeanbart said. The downside, he added, is that the system produces a glut of graduates with degrees in sociology and philosophy and not enough in engineering and economics.

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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