Thousands swell Paris streets in protest

By John Lichfield

PARIS - In the biggest anti-government protests for at least a decade, more than 200,000 people marched through the streets of Paris yesterday to protest against controversial new employment contracts for the young.

Union leaders claimed that demonstrations throughout France attracted more than three million people, which would make them the largest protests for almost half a century.

Scattered violence erupted on the edges of the Paris march. There were also running battles at the end in the Place de la Republique between police and multi-racial gangs of teenage youths from deprived suburbs.

However, police and union security teams - and heavy downpours of rain - prevented the kind of widespread robberies, beatings and pitched battles seen at the end of a march last week.

The gangs, in groups of 20 to 50, swarmed through the marchers like shoals of predatory fish. On this occasion, unlike last week, police plainclothes hit squads were under orders to intervene rapidly. Muscular trades union security officers also stepped in to discourage the gangs.

A nationwide day of strike action called by the five main trades union federations to protest against the contrat premiere embauche or "first job contract" was less successful.

Many schools closed. One in three internal fights was cancelled. Only half of regional trains were running. The Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera were forced to shut down.

However, the unions failed to achieve the kind of widespread disruption that they were hoping for. On the Paris Metro two in three trains ran normally. High speed and international trains were hardly affected. Private industry was barely touched.

Judging by the huge and high-spirited turn-out for the march through eastern Paris, the month-old dispute has now mobilised the young and the many and varied tribes of the French left. However, the relatively poor turnout for the strikes suggests that the battle has yet to interest the great majority of the French working and salaried classes.

Despite the huge turnout for the street marches - police estimated the national total 1,500,000 and unions at double that figure - the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, may take some comfort from yesterday's events.

Villepin's "first jobs contract" is meant to reduce the 23 per cent youth unemployment in France. Under the new law, companies can hire people under the age of 26 for a two-year trial period. During that time, they can be fired without explanation (but with compensation).

Villepin yesterday once again offered to negotiate on some of the more controversial terms of the new law but refused to withdraw it altogether.

The Government's number two, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, distanced himself from Villepin, calling for the law to be "placed in abeyance" during negotiations with unions and students.

Banner after banner in yesterday's march complained about "liberalisme" or "precarite" (insecurity).

Simon Poupard, a 23-year-old film student, dressed head to foot in plastic rubbish bags, said: "There is already much social despair in this country ... with the CPE it will become unliveable."

Marc, 56, an employee at the Paris Opera, had tears in his eyes. "It is so beautiful when the people rise up. Just look at all these people. It's wonderful. Wonderful."

- INDEPENDENT

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