French students in mass protests against labour law

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Students, trade unionists and left-wingers took to the streets across France yesterday to put pressure on the conservative government to cancel a new law they fear will undermine job security for young workers.

Tens of thousands turned out in Paris, Lyon and Rennes in the biggest of 160 demonstrations planned as part of a movement that has created a crisis for the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin.

Trade union marshals and ranks of riot police kept discreet but watchful eyes on the crowds to avoid any repetition of the violence that marred a Paris student rally on Thursday.

The protesters want Mr de Villepin to withdraw a youth job contract, known as the First Employment Contract (CPE), that lets firms fire workers under 26 without explanation in their first two years on the job. He launched it to spur reluctant employers to take on new staff.

"I risk working for two years for nothing, just to be fired at any moment," said Paris student Coralie Huvet, 20, who had "No to the CPE" written on her forehead. Pointing to painted-on tears, she added: "That's depressing, that's why I'm crying."

The march organisers decry the CPE as a "Kleenex contract" that lets young workers be "thrown away like a paper tissue".

Opposition Socialist and Communist politicians also joined the protest, only the third time in almost four decades (after 1968 and 1994) that students and workers marched together.

Many parents accompanied their children at the demonstrations, where banners declared "No to throw-away youths" and "Tired of being squeezed lemons".