PARIS - Rampaging French youths set fire to cars and looted shops in Paris last night, marring protests against a youth jobs law that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin had agreed to discuss with unions.
Aides said Villepin would meet senior trade union officials today to try to defuse a crisis that has triggered a national strike threat and drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters on to French streets.
In Paris, riot police fired tear gas in clashes with youths, dubbed "casseurs" by the French, in the Invalides areas near the Foreign Ministry, Reuters witnesses said.
Youths threw stones at police and set fire to the door of an apartment building in running battles at the end of a largely peaceful rally by thousands of students and workers against the CPE First Job Contract.
"This time, there are lots of young criminals on the march who are there to steal and smash. This discredits the movement," said Charlie Herblin, a 22-year-old worker on the Paris march.
Organisers said between 450,000 and 550,000 people rallied across France, with about 140,000 taking to the streets in Paris in protest against a contract they say will create "Kleenex workers" whom employers can throw away at will.
Police said 220,000 people protested throughout France and about 23,000 youths rallied in Paris.
Dozens of young people, many wearing masks or hoods, overturned cars, smashed shop windows and robbed student demonstrators of clothes and mobile phones, witnesses said.
Police said about 60 people were injured in the capital, 27 of them police officers, and 141 were arrested.
Clashes also erupted in the western city of Rennes, where about 300 to 400 youths battled with police.
Unions have called a one-day national strike for Tuesday to demand the withdrawal of the CPE, which allows employers to fire people aged under 26 at any stage during a two-year trial period, without stating a reason.
In response to a written invitation from Villepin for a meeting, leaders of the five main labour confederations said they would meet the prime minister on Friday, but they reiterated their demand for the CPE to be withdrawn.
One government source described the planned meeting as a "turning point", saying: "We're turning a page today...We are ready to put all solutions on the table."
Villepin has invited student leaders to meet him next week.
President Jacques Chirac has increased pressure on his prime minister to renew contact with unions, said the newspaper Le Parisien, suggesting Villepin's job was now at stake.
"If things don't change very quickly, the prime minister will be fired," it quoted one government source as saying.
About two-thirds of French voters want the CPE withdrawn, a survey showed on Thursday.
Villepin's popularity has slumped and analysts say the protests are damaging the prime minister's thinly veiled ambitions to run in the 2007 presidential election.
Responding to prodding from Chirac, Villepin told union leaders in his letter he wanted a meeting "as quickly as possible" and would not restrict the agenda. Until now he has said he would only discuss how best to enforce the new law.
Villepin has championed the law as a key tool in the battle to cut youth unemployment of 23 per cent. Ministers have offered to halve the trial period and require bosses to justify layoffs.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Villepin's rival to contest the presidency under the conservatives' colours, on Wednesday broke ranks over the CPE contract, calling for a six-month trial period in an effort to ease the crisis.
Sarkozy fears the protests could boost the Left and sink the conservatives' chances in elections next year.