Riot fears grow as French students block station

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The Independent Online
STUDENTS blocked railway lines at one of Paris's main stations yesterday in continuing protests against government plans to cut the legal minimum wage for the young.

Police said that about 100 youngsters stopped traffic at Montparnasse station, from which high- speed trains serve south-west France and Britanny, for two hours in mid-afternoon. But the bulk of the protests which started a week ago was still in the provinces. Some 20 towns and cities were affected by demonstrations which on occasion have turned violent.

In Lyons, where some of the most serious incidents have occurred, schoolchildren and students mass in the Place Bellecour, the city's main square, every morning. In a televised confrontation with Nicolas Sarkozy, the Gaullist Budget Minister and government spokesman, students accused riot police of being deliberately provocative, often firing tear-gas grenades or using water-cannon against peaceful demonstrators.

The government decree lowering the minimum wage, the Smic, to allow employers to take on youngsters at 20 per cent below the legally allowed level, has now become law but Mr Sarkozy told the students it could be reviewed in the autumn. If it had done nothing to achieve its aim of reducing unemployment among the young, replacement measures could be studied, he said. The jobless rate for under-26-year-olds in France is 23 per cent.

One student said that if the measures were not withdrawn there could be a new May 1968, when student riots paralysed France. Mr Sarkozy responded by saying in essence that the leftist students of those full-employment days were protesting against being forced into the consumer society whereas today's demonstrators were frightened of being excluded from it.

The issue has given Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister and currently the most likely contender to succeed Francois Mitterrand as President next year, the toughest test of his first year running the government. Although his cabinet has fine-tuned the reform of the Smic since the depth of opposition became apparent, it has refused to go back on the measure.

The student movement, supported by the main trade unions, has become alarming because of fears it could grow out of control. Police say the students have been joined by 'casseurs', or 'smashers', who break windows and attack police and then retreat behind lines of children. In Lyons, where 90 people were detained on Monday, police said only a quarter of them were bona fide students. Another 70 were arrested on Tuesday.

A test for the strength of the movement will come tomorrow, when a nation-wide protest, including Paris, has been called.

Teachers' unions, meanwhile, expressed their surprise at a call by Francois Bayrou, the Education Minister, to head-teachers to stop children leaving classes to join demonstrations. The SNPDEN, a head-teachers' union, said it was 'anxious that the right be respected of any citizen, including a pupil, to express his opinion and concerns'.

Mr Bayrou responded by instructing education authorities to remind school principals of the rules governing the compulsory attendance of children in schools.