French unions' protest ends in violence

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FRANCE'S trade union groupings, normally divided by different political allegiances, joined forces yesterday for the first time in 30 years to demonstrate against government plans to lower the minimum legal wage for the young.

Despite measures to stop a repetition of the violence which dogged a similar demonstration a week before, however, hundreds of youths with clubs and stones marred the demonstration in Paris.

As the protest march broke up near Les Invalides, the youths, many masked or wearing crash-helmets, set fire to two cars and overturned 15 others as well as smashing windows along the route.

The organisers had arranged their own security while 3,200 police had been mobilised to head off violence. The route of the demonstration was changed to avoid Montparnasse where restaurant and cafe windows were smashed on 10 March.

Tens of thousands marched in Paris while other protests were held all over France. The main trade union federations, from the traditionally pro-Communist CGT to the Socialist CFDT and more centrist groups, were joined by student organisations.

The reason was a decision two weeks ago by Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, to allow employers to take on young people under 26 at a monthly salary of 3,790 francs (pounds 439), 80 per cent of the legal minimum wage or Smic, a modern French institution.

Although the government backtracked slightly a week ago by saying that this measure, aimed at giving the young more job opportunities and combating the 23 per cent unemployment rate among the under-26s, would not apply to people with higher education, the matter has prompted considerable opposition.

Mr Balladur, in an open letter to the young published yesterday, appealed to them to give his measure a chance, proposing that student organisations and the government review its progress together at the end of the year.

'I believe in your good faith,' Mr Balladur wrote, 'believe in mine.'