Paris riot raises spectre of May '68

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UNEXPECTED violence at a student demonstration in Paris has heightened official fears that what politicians call 'a social explosion' is at hand.

Several hundred demonstrators who marched through Paris on Thursday to protest against plans to allow employers to pay young workers wages below the legal minimum smashed windows and cars in Montparnasse.

The incidents, which prompted student leaders to disband the rally early, were far from the scale of the May 1968 riots which brought France to a standstill. However, observers had been predicting for several weeks that the plight of the more than 3 million unemployed would provoke social unrest.

The casseurs, or 'smashers', on Thursday were said by police and student leaders to be youths from the poor suburbs with no link to the 20,000-odd peaceful student demonstrators.

Using clubs, they damaged some of Paris's most famous terrasses, including Le Dome restaurant - where President Francois Mitterrand sometimes eats - and La Coupole.

Although riot police were at hand, local residents were critical of their slow reaction. The late arrival of plainclothes police to single out trouble-makers suggested police had not anticipated violence.

The trouble followed two nights of rioting in the northern Paris suburb of Garges-les-Gonesse after a 16- year-old boy was found murdered.

Now, with trade unions demonstrating in Paris today and next Thursday, the fear is of a new trend and that the casseurs will be back.

The protests on Thursday were against government plans to allow employers to pay young people a monthly salary of 3,790 French francs ( pounds 439), which is 80 per cent of the legal minimum wage, known as the Smic.

The Smic has become an institution in modern France and a social benefit that the unions fiercely defend. Opponents argue that it sets wages too high and therefore contributes to rising unemployment. Unemployment currently stands at 23 per cent among those under 26.

Responding to the protests, Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, said the measure would not apply to those with higher education. Like other recent government retreats, in recent months, this was seen as a sign that Mr Balladur was anxious not to provoke trouble in the months before the May 1995 presidential elections. He is currently the best-placed potential candidate.