Student protest in Paris fails to rattle authorities

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THOUSANDS of students marched through central Paris yesterday to protest against government proposals to lower the minimum legal wage for the young.

But the demonstration appeared far smaller than the authorities had feared. According to police, 20,000 youngsters took part, while the organisers said there were 30,000. Both figures were small in Paris terms.

The march in the capital had been awaited as a gauge of whether it was likely to grow and cause serious trouble for the government. In Toulouse yesterday, an estimated 15,000 students took to the streets.

In the first hour in Paris, five riot policemen and one television journalist were hurt in clashes in which police fired tear-gas grenades. More incidents broke out as the march reached its end at the Place de la Nation, in eastern Paris.

Before the demonstration, Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist Interior Minister, took unprecedented measures to reduce its impact. From Thursday evening police towed away parked cars along the demonstration route - for the vehicles' own protection. In two previous Paris protests, on 10 and 17 March, parked cars were a particular target.

Schools near the route sent letters to parents saying that no children of primary school age would be allowed to leave if they were not met by adults at the end of the day.

Shop-keepers along and near the route said they had received visits from police, suggesting they pull down their shutters for the duration of the protest. The manager of the Gaumont cinema at the Place de la Nation protested that this would mean a loss of 40,000 francs ( pounds 4,600) in turnover. After the previous Paris demonstrations the state said it would pay for damage caused.

As the demonstrators gathered at the start of the march on the Place Denfert-Rochereau, in southern Paris, the smell of North African merguez sausages filled the air, while entreprising vendors set up mobile barbecues to satiate youthful hunger. A column of street-cleaning vehicles sent by the city council, vying for space with coaches carrying some of the 3,300 police assigned to the protest, followed the march to clear up debris.

The issue is ostensibly the reduction of the minimum wage for under-26-year-olds. But members of the year-old government of Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, believe it is just a pretext for youth, struck by a general malaise in a world where insecurity colours its view of the future, to raise its voice.

Unlike the May 1968 Paris- centred protests, which rocked the state, the current unrest does not concern university students as much as youngsters in various technical institutes.

The government has said the lowering of the minimum wage will not apply to those with more than two years of higher education. The usual degree course is three years.

On Thursday, marches were particularly violent in the Breton port of Nantes and in Lyons. In Lyons, the local Prefect, or government representative, told shop-keepers' representatives that he was concerned by reports that some of them had acquired arms for their own protection.

One anonymous shop-keeper, who said on Europe 1 Radio that he had a firearm in his shop, said a gun-wielding neighbour had successfully chased off youths who had tried to loot his shop.