Noisy demonstrations in France as jobs law dies a quiet death

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Hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets of French cities again yesterday to demand the public strangling of a youth jobs law which has already been sentenced to a quiet death.

A large, noisy and mostly peaceful march through eastern Paris had something of the atmosphere of a victory parade. Union and student leaders claimed that, across the country, more than 3,000,000 demonstrated against the "easy hire-easy fire" job law for the young - matching last week's protest numbers.

As the march ended last night, once again there were violent incidents involving fringe groups. About 1,000 anarchists and youths from deprived suburbs hurled lumps of concrete at the riot police. The police responded with tear gas. At least one photographer and a demonstrator were injured.

Earlier, an anarchist group waving red and black flags broke away from the main march, smashing shop and car windows.

One-day strikes in the public sector - from trains to schools - were much less successful than last week but there were more stoppages in private industry.

If President Jacques Chirac hoped that his partial retreat last Friday would break the momentum of public opposition to the "first job contracts" for the under 26s, he will have been disappointed.

The march may have been marginally smaller than last week - perhaps 200,000 people - but it was packed with school and university students, rather than trade-union and far-left militants. When the first protesters reached the end of the route in the Place de L'Italie, there were still many waiting to leave the Place de la République three miles away. Mostly, however, the demonstration was peaceful but determined.

"We have the government on the run," said Sébastien, 21, a history student from Paris 5 University. "But we must not give up in the final straight. Chirac may think that he can come back with a new law which is not much different than the first one. We are here to show him that he is wrong."

Talks begin today between student and union leaders and M. Chirac's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), looking for common ground on a new law intended to reduce France's 23 per cent youth unemployment.

The Contrat Première Embauche (CPE) - or first job contract - was the brain-child of the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin. It would allow employers to fire people under 26 in the first two years without explanation. From small beginnings on a few university campuses, a storm of protest has blown up against M. Villepin's plan in the past four weeks. The Prime Minister, who is hoping to run for the presidency next year, has been deeply wounded. His positive opinion poll ratings fell to their lowest ever level yesterday to 28 per cent.

Last Friday, President Chirac said that he would sign the new law but he ordered the government to suspend it to start talks on a replacement. Opinions differ within M. Chirac's party - and among protesters - over whether this should be interpreted as a climbdown.

Union and student leaders say that they will not discuss amendments to the CPE, only its abolition and replacement. The number two in the government, Nicolas Sarkozy, who will guide the talks, made it clear that he is prepared to start from scratch. The Elysée Palace insists that something resembling the CPE must survive the negotiations.

There has been much debate in France whether the student-led revolt of March-April 2006 is a re-run of the May 1968 student rebellion. Compared to the optimistic mood 38 years ago, many young people yesterday seemed angry and depressed. One placard read "Desperately searching for a future" while others emblazoned "Non" on their foreheads. This compared with a 1968 slogan: "It is forbidden to forbid."