Youths from multi-racial troublespots join riots

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France is facing disturbing signs of renewed violent unrest in its poor suburbs, ignited by the deepening student protests against a new jobs law for the young.

There were running battles between police and lycee (sixth-form) pupils in several parts of the northern Paris suburbs yesterday - in the same deprived areas where five weeks of nationwide rioting began last October.

Groups of teenagers stoned riot police and smashed cars after leaving their schools to join the protests against a new "first job" contract, which makes it easier to hire, and fire, first-time workers under 26.

The French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, now faces the prospect that the student unrest could re-kindle a separate, but related, crisis: the smouldering problems in the poor multi-racial banlieues. Police fear that an influx of teenagers from the suburbs could add a violent edge to peaceful student marches planned in Paris and many other French cities today.

The degree of real political commitment of the suburban youths to the wider student cause is open to doubt. In recent days, small, multi-racial groups of teenagers from the banlieues have been joining the university demonstrations, burning cars and fighting the riot police - but also mugging the older, middle-class students.

In a first sign of a serious split in the centre-right government on how to handle the crisis, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, yesterday called for the new jobs law to be applied for a six-month "experimental" period only. This ran directly counter to M. Villepin's statement the previous evening that he would not "suspend" or "tamper with" the law.

In an interview with the magazine Paris-Match, M. Sarkozy denied rumours that he planned to resign before the crisis scarred his hopes of winning the presidency next year.

He did, however, issue a stark warning - in an interview conducted before yesterday's clashes - that the "effervescent" student protests could "re-awaken the agitation in the suburbs, which remain very tense".

M. Villepin's jobs initiative - the contrat première embauche (CPE) or "first job contract" - was intended partly to respond to the crippling youth unemployment in France's poor suburbs. The law provides a two-year trial period in which an employer can sack a young worker without giving a reason.

The Prime Minister argues that this will make it easier for employers to give underqualified, or unqualified, young people a first job.

The CPE has been attacked by university students and trade union federations as an attempt to treat the young as disposable "Kleenex" workers, cheated of the job protections of their parents.

Until the last few days, youngsters in the suburbs have ignored the protests. Some have even welcomed the law as better than no jobs at all.

Since the end of last week, however, lycees pupils have mobilised against the law, including many from the deprived suburbs.

Yesterday, a group of 200 to 300 pupils from two schools stoned riot police and smashed car windows after trying to halt lessons at a lycee in Blanc-Mesnil, in the département of Seine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris. It was in this département that riots began last October, which eventually spread throughout France.

There were also smaller clashes between police and pupils outside lycees in nearby Noisy-le-Sec and Villepinte.

The authorities have become increasingly alarmed by evidence in recent days that suburban youth gangs have decided to intervene in the mostly peaceful student demonstrations. Masked youths battled police for six hours after a march in eastern Paris on Saturday.

So-called casseurs, or vandals, joined other demonstrations in Paris on Tuesday, smashing car windows with baseball bats and stealing mobile phones from other demonstrators.