French protest grows


PARIS -- Students joined forces yesterday with teachers, workers, retirees, opposition politicians and labor union leaders in more than 150 cities and towns throughout France in the largest nationwide protest against the government's new youth labor law.

A number of public figures joined in, including the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe; the Socialist party leader, Francois Hollande; a former culture minister, Jack Lang; and the Communist Party leader, Marie-George Buffet.

The demonstrations were the climax of a week of protests that have shut down dozens of universities and confronted Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin with one of the most serious crises in his 10 months in office.

The giant left-wing CGT workers union estimated that 1.5 million people protested nationwide; the Interior Ministry put the total at more than 500,000, with 80,000 in Paris.

Protesters vowed to continue until the government backed down.

Bernard Thibault, the CGT leader, said, "If they don't listen to us, we are going to have to think about moving to a general strike across the entire country."

Jean-Claude Mailly, the leader of the leftist union Force Ouvriere, said in a telephone interview after the protest, "The Prime Minister must understand that he must renounce" the labor law "before a true dialogue can begin."

Bruno Julliard, the leader of the student union that first organized the protests, threatened that if by last night, "the government doesn't withdraw this initiative, we'll continue."

The protesters want the abolition of a new law, the First Employment Contract, to take effect in April, that allows employers to fire new workers under the age of 26 without cause within the first two years.

Designed by the government to help ease the crisis of chronic high unemployment, particularly among poor youth after riots last fall in the suburbs, the law is seen by its opponents as a step toward eroding long-cherished employment rights and benefits.

Protesters point out that the law was pushed through Parliament without debate and charge that it is age discrimination.

Unemployment in France is at almost 10 percent, and 23 percent of French citizens under 26 are jobless, one of the highest rates in Europe; in some of the major city suburbs, the figure is nearly double that.

President Jacques Chirac appealed Friday for the marchers to show "calm and respect," and security police officers in riot gear were out in full force throughout France yesterday.

About 300 people have been arrested in a week of protests. More than 100 police and 21 protesters have been injured.

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