Violence mars huge marches in France against new jobs law

Riot police fire tear gas, rubber pellets into the crowds of several hundred youths.

riot police 88 (photo credit: )
riot police 88
(photo credit: )
Rioting youths swarmed across a downtown Paris plaza, ripping up street signs and park benches and hurling stones and chunks of paving at police at the end of the largest of massive protests across France on Tuesday against a new jobs law. Riot police fired tear gas and rubber pellets and made repeated charges into the crowds of several hundred youths at Place d'Italie on the Left Bank, carrying away those they arrested. Paris police said they took more than 200 people into custody and that 18 people suffered slight injuries. Youths attacked people in groups, kicking and punching them. They used metal bars to break up chunks of pavement that they hurled at helmeted riot officers, who advanced behind raised shields to sweep the square clear. Youths also smashed shop fronts, bus shelters and clashed with police in Rennes, in northwest France. The violence marred another day of huge protests against the job law, which makes it easier to fire young workers. Police said more than 1 million people poured into the streets in 268 protest marches across the country, including 84,000 in Paris. Union organizers put the figure in the capital at 700,000 - and 3 million nationwide. It was the second Tuesday running that unions and student groups had mobilized such numbers, maintaining intense pressure on President Jacques Chirac's government to withdraw the measure, even though renewed nationwide strikes Tuesday lost a little steam. Strikers again shut down the Eiffel Tower, but mail was delivered, more planes and trains were running, fewer teachers stayed off the job and there were fewer disruptions to daily life. The government said fewer high schools and colleges were closed or suffering disruptions by protesters. Students backed by unions have spearheaded ever-larger marches for two months against the law. Chirac signed it anyway Sunday, saying it will help France keep pace with the global economy. He offered modifications, but students and unions rejected them, saying they want the law withdrawn, not softened. "What Chirac has done is not enough," said Rebecca Konforti, 18, who was among a group of students who jammed tables against the door of their high school in southern Paris to block entry. "They're not really concessions. He just did it to calm the students." In a sign that the impasse might be easing, leaders of five major trade unions agreed to talks on Wednesday, although they said they would hold firm on their demand that the jobs law be withdrawn. "The priority is to come out of the current crisis," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said in parliament Tuesday. The violence in Paris was less intense than at previous marches - in part because police have stepped up their efforts to thwart troublemakers. Paris deployed 4,000 officers Tuesday and armed riot officers pulled over train travelers disembarking from the suburbs before the protest, searching their bags and checking identities. Police say those who have rioted on the margins of marchers are youths from Paris' tougher suburbs, and extremists from both the far right and far left. Tourists, meanwhile, stood bewildered before closed gates at the Eiffel Tower. Parisian commuters flattened themselves onto subway trains limited by the strike. Garbage bins in some Paris neighborhoods stood overflowing and uncollected by striking sanitation workers. Irish budget airline Ryanair canceled all its flights in and out of France. The prime minister championed the disputed "first job contract" to stem chronic youth unemployment rates, which run at 22 percent and as high as 50 percent among youths in some depressed, heavily immigrant neighborhoods hit by weeks of riots last fall. Villepin maintains the measure would encourage hiring by giving employers greater flexibility, allowing them to fire workers under 26 if things don't work out in their first two years on a job. Critics say it threatens France's hallmark labor protections, and the crisis has severely damaged Villepin's political reputation. Chirac stepped in Friday to order two major modifications - reducing a trial period of two years to one year and forcing employers to explain any firings - in hopes of defusing the crisis. In so doing, he dealt a blow to Villepin, his one-time top aide and apparent choice as successor in elections next year. Chirac signed the original measure into law this weekend, as promised, but also effectively suspended it with an order that it not be applied. The 73-year-old president's legal sleight of hand kept the law alive while a new version is in the works.