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Million french protest against youth job law

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A million French protest against youth job law
Tue Mar 28, 2006 1:45 PM ET

By Kerstin Gehmlich and Anna Willard

PARIS (Reuters) - At least one million people marched in French cities and unions staged a one-day national strike on Tuesday, urging the government to scrap a youth jobs law in one of France's biggest protests in decades.

Unions and student groups said 3 million people took part in rallies across the country, including 700,000 in central Paris, where police used tear gas against hundreds of youths who threw bottles and Molotov cocktail petrol bombs.

One union official said demonstrations against Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's CPE First Job Contract were among the biggest since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.

The Interior Ministry put the national turnout at 1,055,000, twice that of a day of action a week ago. Unions and police habitually give widely diverging estimates.

Union and student leaders say the CPE will create a generation of "throwaway workers" by making it easier to dismiss employees under 26 during a two-year trial period. Villepin hopes it will reduce youth unemployment of almost 23 percent.

"We're demanding the complete withdrawal of the CPE. You can't treat people like slaves. Giving all the power to the bosses is going too far," said Gregoire de Oliviera, a 21-year-old student protesting in Paris.

Villepin, 52, has stood firm over the plan but the strong turnout increased pressure on him to amend or withdraw the measure and calls for his resignation grew. He made a new call for talks with unions, but they rejected his appeal.

The protests forced the Eiffel Tower to close to tourists, while commuters around the country faced delays on public transport and airports were disrupted.

"The problem is we are studying just to be exploited. The government must withdraw the CPE. We will continue to protest on the streets," said Laura Dali, an 18-year-old student in Paris.

Isolated skirmishes hit marches in provincial cities and Paris, where police fired paintballs to mark troublemakers and 245 people were arrested. A water cannon was later used to quell protesters throwing missiles, but the Paris clashes were smaller than after protests last week.


Villepin, a potential candidate in next year's presidential election, faces his biggest challenge since becoming prime minister last May. Opinion polls show almost two-thirds of French people oppose the CPE.

Business leaders also fear France's image will be damaged if protests continue and that investment and tourism could suffer, particularly because the crisis has erupted so soon after rioting by angry youths in city suburbs late last year.

Unions refused to meet Villepin for talks on Wednesday but he renewed the invitation, offering to compromise on the length of the trial period and the terms for giving notice.

"Useful time remains, let's use it for dialogue. But there is one thing that I will not accept ... that is to remain with my arms folded given youth unemployment about which you have never spoken before," he told jeering opposition deputies.

Villepin also faces pressure from inside the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) headed by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a likely rival for the 2007 presidential race.

The UMP parliamentary group on Tuesday backed Sarkozy's proposal that the government not rush to enforce the law and so leave the door open for further negotiations.

President Jacques Chirac, who has backed Villepin during the crisis, canceled a trip to northern France planned for Thursday because of the situation, sources close to the president said.

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande warned Chirac and the government against "running the risk of confrontation with a majority of the country".

(Additional reporting by Brian Rohan, Dominique Rodriguez, Gerard Bon and Laure Bretton)

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