Cars and shops set ablaze as Paris riots continue

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Shops and cars were set ablaze and police stoned in the tourist heart of Paris last night after a jobs law protest by tens of thousands of young people degenerated into random violence.

Scores of hooded youths ran riot around Les Invalides after a tense, but mostly peaceful, march protesting at the law passed by the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, making it easier to hire, and fire, people under 26.

Flames spread from cars to two shops as riot police pleaded with peaceful demonstrators to leave the area around the Foreign Ministry, which began to resemble a battlefield.

Multi-racial gangs of youths, mostly from the deprived Paris suburbs, had earlier charged through the protest march, smashing car windows and beating up other demonstrators who refused to hand over their mobile telephones.

As the official protest ended, these youths, not the main bulk of the marchers, confronted riot police and tried to occupy the large open space in front of the golden-domed Invalides building in the heart of Paris. Several cars were set-alight and the windows of a car-hire office smashed.

Firemen called to the blazes were attacked by the youths with stones and iron bars. CRS riot police fired tear gas and arrested scores of rioters. At one point, fighting also broke out between the rioting youths and a group of ultra-right-wing skinheads.

"Saturday's march was good because everybody was together," said Charlie Herblin, a 22-year-old demonstrator. "This time, there are lots of young criminals on the march who are there to steal and smash. This discredits the movement."

Ultimately, the gangs of rioting youths were arrested or scattered. The riot police, to the fury of the peaceful demonstrators, then pushed the rest of the protesters off the Esplanade des Invalides towards the river Seine.

There were similar outbreaks of random violence, also involving youths who were not part of the main protests, in Rennes and Marseilles. Scattered outbreaks of violence were reported in the Paris suburbs, as lycée students aged 15 to 18 poured on to the streets to support a nationwide day of action.

The incidents justified growing government fears that the jobs law protests, mostly involving middle-class university students until now, might reignite the violent youth unrest which swept through France's poor, multi-racial suburbs last October and November. Then, the orgy of car burning remained mostly in the suburbs. Last night, the violence came into the centre of the capital itself.

It remained unclear whether the youths were motivated by anger against the jobs law or had, as government officials feared, seized on an opportunity to rekindle their confrontations with police of last autumn. Earlier, the government desperately sought an exit from the three-week-old jobs law crisis, which resulted in only scattered violence until now.

France's five main trades union federations will meet the Prime Minister. Earlier, prodded by President Jacques Chirac, M. Villepin had been obliged to softened his refusal to reconsider the main lines of his law.

After crisis talks with President Chirac on Wednesday evening, M. Villepin sent a letter to unions inviting them to a meeting "without preconditions". The Prime Minister is expected to offer that, at the very least, the law should be suspended after a six-month trial period.

But the unions said they would insist on the withdrawal of the law before entering discussions on other ways of trying to reduce France's 22 per cent youth unemployment (70 per cent in some poor suburbs).

A government source told the newspaper Le Parisien that President Chirac was so angered by the handling of the crisis that he was ready to "explode" (fire) M. Villepin unless he found a rapid settlement. The Prime Minister's jobs initiative was intended partly as a response to last autumn's riots, which were blamed by many on the economic and social exclusion of young second-generation immigrants and other suburban youths.

The new law provides a two-year trial period in which an employer can sack a young worker without reason. At the end of this period, the worker must be given a permanent contract. If he is fired, he or she is eligible for welfare benefits.

The Prime Minister says this will make it easier for employers to give underqualified, or unqualified, young people a first job. The young university protesters say the law treats them as a "throwaway" generation, deprived of the employment protections enjoyed by their parents. They insist this is part of a destruction of French social values by the virus of ultra-liberalisme - or ultra-capitalism - imported from the UK and US.

Up to 50,000, mostly young, demonstrators marched through the Left Bank of Paris yesterday and a total of more than 400,000 protested in other large French towns.

The Paris demonstration, from Place de L'Italie to Les Invalides, was largely peaceful but took place in an atmosphere of deep tension. The multi-racial groups of youths from the poor suburbs ran through the march, mugging other young demonstrators for their mobile phones. Other protesters went out of their way to respond to suggestions that the student revolt of March 2006 is a grim affair, much less joyful and idealistic than the student rebellion of May 1968.

Many marchers wore stickers proclaiming not a Grève Générale (or general strike) but a Rêve Générale or General Dream.

Other demonstrators carried placards accusing the jobs law of making the young into a "Kleenex" generation or spreading precarité or insecurity. Some scrawled slogans called for an end to capitalism; to the destruction of the "wage-earning principle"; and even attacking the idea of work itself.

March of the protesters


At least 100,000 take part in rallies in Paris, Rennes, Marseilles, Grenoble and Nantes. Dominique de Villepin defends the First Employment Contract, saying that France must be brave and take steps to keep moving forward.

* 11 MARCH

Riot police grapple with protesters at the Sorbonne in Paris and storm the university to drive out students who have been inside for three days.

* 16 MARCH

At least 250,000 rally across France in demonstrations which flare into violence in some parts.

* 18 MARCH

Hundreds of thousands of people march peacefully through French towns and cities. In Paris more than 300,000 turn out.

* 19 MARCH

Riot police use tear gas and water cannon against protesters in Paris. More than 160 are arrested after vehicles are set on fire as youths clash with police.

* 20 MARCH

Unions and students call for a strike on 28 March. Government insists it will not withdraw the measure.

* 22 MARCH

De Villepin says he will be flexible on part of the law but refuses to abandon the contract entirely.

* 23 MARCH

In Paris, cars and a building are set alight. Clashes reported across the city.