A fortnight of protest has brought the year-old government of Edouard Balladur its most serious crisis yet. The sight of young men and women facing lines of riot police has inevitably revived memories of May 1968.
The main demonstration on Friday was in Paris, where police had cleared the streets of parked cars and asked shopkeepers to pull down their shutters to head off the kind of violent incidents that marred earlier protests in the capital.
After the estimated 30,000 marchers were called on to disperse at the the Place de la Nation, however, fighting broke out. Police said 112 officers were hurt, five seriously, in three hours of clashes. Of 240 youths detained, 90 were still in custody yesterday.
As in the previous two weeks, the main impact was in the provinces. In Lyons, the same number of students and schoolchildren turned out as in Paris. Unlike earlier protests in Lyons, however, this one was peaceful.
In Toulouse, where 15,000 demonstrated, students handed the police flowers.
The only serious incidents outside the capital were in the Breton city of Nantes, where fighting broke out for the fourth time since protests began in earnest on 10 March. Thirty-six protesters were being held there yesterday after clashes well into the night.
In Lyons, the students won a small victory when a court ruled that the prefect of the Rhone department had acted illegally by ordering the expulsion from France of two Algerian boys, picked up for their part in a demonstration. In Marseilles, the pair were put on a boat to Algiers on Thursday, but the court said they should be allowed to return. Thousands gathered on the steps of the Palais de Justice, but dispersed when the father of one of the boys appealled for them to go home.
After Friday's protest, student leaders said they planned another in Paris on Thursday, to maintain the pressure on the government.
The issue that provoked the demonstrations was a decision - now law - to allow employers to pay under-26-year-olds 80 per cent of the Smic, the sacrosanct minimum wage.
The government argued that the measure would encourage companies to give young people their crucial first job, and help to reduce the disastrous 23 per cent youth unemployment rate. Students, backed by the main unions, said the move classed them as cheap labour, and was insulting.
The wage cut does not affect those with more than two years of higher education - so it particularly angered students in technical institutes, where two- year courses are common, and not university students on the usual three-year degree course. This explains the concentration of demonstrations in towns where colleges known as technical university institutes have been created.
Although the violence of the earlier protests was blamed on disaffected youngsters from the underprivileged suburbs and not on the students, a new trend emerged as other demonstrators, particularly children of secondary school age, pelted police with bottles and stones as they saw them charging bands of casseurs or 'smashers'.
As the Paris protest moved off on Friday in a festive atmosphere, a middle-aged man on the edges of the demonstration said: 'This will all end when 2 million of us come out on the street to say we've had enough, as we did in 1968' (when a massive demonstration by a 'silent majority', who supported Charles de Gaulle, signalled the end of the rebellion).
Another observer suggested that the current unrest would fizzle out if the rainy weather of the past months continued. In May 1968, France experienced a heatwave. 'It's over,' said the man. 'We're in for fine weather from now on, and that's going to be a big problem.'
Asked how he knew, he replied: 'I'm a farmer' - a profession that has little to learn when it comes to violent demonstrations in France.
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