'Three million' march against French law

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In the biggest anti-government protests for at least a decade, more than 200,000 people marched through the streets of Paris to protest against controversial new employment contracts for the young.

Union leaders claimed that yesterday's demonstrations throughout France attracted more than three million people, which would make them the largest protests for almost half a century.

Scattered violence erupted on the edges of the Paris march. There were also running battles at the end in the Place de la République between police and multi-racial gangs of teenagers from deprived suburbs. But police and union security teams - and heavy downpours of rain - prevented the kind of widespread robberies, beatings and pitched battles seen at the end of a march last Thursday.

A nationwide day of strike action called by the five main trades union federations to protest against the contrat prèmiere embauche or "first job contract" was less successful. Many schools closed. One in three internal flights was cancelled. Only half of regional trains were running. The Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera were forced to shut down.

But the unions failed to achieve the kind of widespread disruption that they were hoping for. On the Paris Metro, two in three trains ran normally. High-speed and international trains were hardly affected. Private industry was barely touched.

Judging by the huge and high-spirited turn-out for the march through eastern Paris, the month-old dispute has now mobilised the young and the many and varied tribes of the French left. However, the relatively poor turn-out for the strikes suggests that the battle has yet to interest the great majority of the French working and salaried classes.

Despite the huge turn-out for the street marches - police estimated the national total to be 1,500,000, and unions double that - the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, may take some comfort from yesterday's events.

M Villepin's "first jobs contract" is meant to reduce the 23 per cent youth unemployment in France. Under the new law, companies can hire people under the age of 26 for a two-year trial period. During that time, they can be fired without explanation (but with compensation).

Yesterday, M Villepin once again offered to negotiate on some of the more controversial terms of the new law, but refused to withdraw it altogether. The number two in the government, the Interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, distanced himself from M Villepin on Monday night, calling for the law to be "placed in abeyance" during negotiations with unions and students.

Student unions say that the law treats the young as a "disposable" commodity. Unions complain that it drives a wedge in to decades of accumulated legal protections of employment. The law has also become a symbol of what many on the French left see - or like to see - as wicked, anti-social, "ultra-capitalist" influences from the US and Britain.