800 arrested in French job law protest

Paris police used tear gas and batons to quell angry demonstrators in Paris as nationwide strikes and protest action brought over a million onto the nation's streets to rally against new youth job laws.

Police made 800 arrests around the country and reported 50 injuries in the protest action which also affected public transport, banks, schools and colleges and closed down all newspapers for the day.

The worst of the violence occurred at the end of the main rally in Paris, in the Place de la Republique in the northeast of the capital, where gangs of youths flung taunts and projectiles at riot police who responded with baton-charges and tear-gas.

There were more violent scenes elsewhere, notably in the cities of Rennes and Grenoble.

The scale of the protests was one of the biggest in modern French history, and unions — who put the figure of participants between two and three million claimed another success in their escalating campaign against the First Employment Contract (CPE).

Police put the turnout figure at just over one million.

Whatever the figures, the mass action put more pressure on Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin who is championing the new law which would allow employers to sack workers aged under 26 in their first two years of employment.

Villepin reiterated his refusal to withdraw the contested youth jobs plan said he was open to modifications, deputies from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party said.

However, the protesting students and trade unionists appeared in no mood to negotiate.

"It is historic. It is unthinkable for the prime minister to stay fixed in his position. For us there is just one outcome and that is withdrawal of this reform," said Bernard Thibault of the CGT union.

"I do not know if today's mobilisation will make the prime minister give way. But what I do know is that each week we will be out in greater numbers," said Francois Chereque of the CFDT union.

"The government does not seem to have any intention of budging," said one woman at the Paris march. "It is sad, but if you want to change things and be heard, taking to the streets is the only way in our country. Democracy through the ballot box, that's only an illusion."

Police had deployed in large numbers to avoid a repeat of last Thursday's violence, when youths, mainly from high-immigration city suburbs, set fire to cars and mugged demonstrators.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told officers their task was "first to protect the demonstrators, second, to arrest as many hooligans as possible and third, to protect passers-by and shops".

Trade unions and student groups had vowed a "black Tuesday" of strikes and protests in their three-week campaign against the CPE, which makes it easier to hire and fire young people, reports AFP.

I.L.

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