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Police, Jobs Law Protesters Clash in Paris

JENNY BARCHFIELD, Associated Press | April 5 2006

PARIS - Rioting youths swarmed across a downtown Paris plaza, ripping up street signs and park benches and hurling stones and chunks of pavement at police at the end of the largest of massive but mostly peaceful protests Tuesday across France 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.

The clashes came as more than 1 million people poured into the streets across the country, including 84,000 in Paris, according to police. Union organizers put the figure in the capital at 700,000 — and 3 million nationwide.

But the violence in Paris was less intense than at previous marches against the law, and the country was less affected by an accompanying national strike. As before, the Paris violence appeared to involve youths from tougher suburbs and extremists from both the far right and far left.

"It is giving them too much credit to ascribe an ideology to them. These are just hoodlums, who come to break and pillage. I'm not sure there is an ideology behind all this," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said.

Groups of these youths attacked bystanders, news photographers and protesters, kicking and punching some. 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 store windows, bus shelters and clashed with police in Rennes, in northwest France. Store fronts, cars and telephone boxes also were damaged in Lille in the northeast.

Police said they took 383 people into custody in Paris, where 18 people also suffered slight injuries, and another 243 elsewhere in France. The violence marred another day of demonstrations against the jobs law, which would make it easier to fire young workers.

There were 268 marches nationwide, according to police. It was the second Tuesday running that unions and student groups had mobilized so many protesters, maintaining intense pressure on President Jacques Chirac's government to withdraw the measure.

Strikers again shut down the Eiffel Tower, where tourists stood bewildered before the closed gates. 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.

Still, the renewed nationwide work stoppages lost a little steam compared to a week earlier.

This time 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.

Paris police stepped up their efforts to thwart troublemakers, deploying 4,000 officers Tuesday. Armed riot officers pulled over train travelers disembarking from the suburbs before the protest, searching their bags and checking identities. The Paris march snaked from the Place de la Republique and crossed the Seine River to finish at Place d'Italie on the Left Bank.

Students backed by unions have spearheaded ever-larger marches for two months against the jobs law. Chirac signed it anyway Sunday, saying it will help France keep up with the global economy.

He offered modifications, but students and unions rejected them, saying they want the law withdrawn, not softened.

"We are really close to getting the government to give in," said Marc Dago, a high school geology teacher at the Paris march. "If we give in now, the government is going to carry out much more harmful and far-reaching reforms that will affect all workers, not just the young."

In a sign that the impasse might be easing, major unions agreed to talks Wednesday with members of Chirac's party charged with drawing up the president's proposed modifications to the jobs law, although the labor leaders also 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.

Villepin 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.

He 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.

But critics say the law 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.

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