Rioting erupts in Paris as students protest at jobs law

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The Independent Online

Riots broke out in the centre of Paris last night as French police used teargas against students who were pelting them with stones and bottles after marches held to protest against a new job law brought more than a quarter of a million youths on to the streets nationwide.

Although the rioting cannot be compared to the scale of the events of 1968, the scenes around the Sorbonne in the Latin quarter, where the air was filled with teargas, were reminiscent of the student demonstrations almost 40 years ago.

The mounting student unrest could also have political consequences as they now threaten the presidential ambitions of the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin.

Students and pupils have stepped up their mobilisation against the job law brought in two months ago by M. de Villepin, who says it will help to reduce unemployment among the young, now running at 22.8 per cent, more than twice the overall national rate. But the students fear that they will have less job protection because it allows employers to dismiss workers under 26 during a two-year trial period without having to give a reason.

The opposition to the reforms has highlighted the public's resistance to any weakening of France's social protection regime.

The demonstrations have been largely peaceful so far, although police evicted about 300 students from the Sorbonne last weekend. But the next major step comes tomorrow when they will be joined by trade unions. More than one million people marched in the last such demonstration on 7 March.

Student leaders said up to 600,000 marched across France and that 64 of the country's 84 universities were hit by the protests. Officials put the number of demonstrators at 247,500 protesters nationwide.

Demonstrators, whistling and beating drums, yesterday paraded through the streets shouting: "Villepin, you're toast - the students are in the streets!" and "Chirac, Villepin, Sarkozy, your trial period is up!" referring to President Jacques Chirac, the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

But the protests turned violent in Paris, where 33,000 people turned out to demonstrate. Rioting has become a feature of the aftermath of French demonstrations, as small numbers of "casseurs" (breakers) move in behind the protesters, bent on smashing property and looting. Police said they detained 150 people in Paris, who hurled barriers, bottles, and tables and chairs taken from cafés at them. The police responded with water cannon, teargas and baton charges.

M. de Villepin went on television on Sunday night to defend his reform, but he has offered to discuss its implementation in hopes of mollifying the students. But no negotiations have been held, and M. de Villepin's position looks increasingly perilous, despite being supported by Mr Chirac. With his popularity dropping in the polls, M. de Villepin is being criticised from within the ruling party for his aloof style of government.