French Prime Minister to meet university heads

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin plans to meet with the heads of universities today after student rallies against his new labor plan turned violent and the country braced for a large protest rally tomorrow.

A march by hundreds of thousands of students yesterday resulted in clashes with the police in central Paris after protesters threw stones, tried to break through barricades and set fire to a newspaper kiosk. Police fired tear gas, and 272 people were arrested. Rioters set fire to a bookshop and destroyed the terrace of a café in the square in front of the Sorbonne University in the Latin Quarter. Anti-riot police used water cannons to disperse the crowd.

A survey of 857 people by polling company CSA in Le Parisien today shows that two out of three French people are against the law, known by its French acronym CPE. Under the new law, companies can fire workers under 26 within the first two years of employment with little notice or severance. The law is de Villepin's attempt to cut unemployment, which is 9.6 percent nationwide and 22.2 percent among the young.

``It's obvious that the government is waiting for the mobilization to wear out,'' Bernard Thibault, secretary general of Force Ouvriere, France's third-largest union, said on France2 television yesterday. ``If the government persists, we'll have to shift to the upper gear.''

De Villepin has refused to revoke the law. Labor unions and students have made the law's withdrawal a condition for resuming talks with the government. The rally tomorrow, in which students, labor unions and the opposition Socialist Party have joined forced, could be the peak of the protests.

In scenes reminiscent of protests in 1968, the police have evicted students occupying universities, including the Sorbonne in Paris's Latin Quarter, in the last few weeks. Students have also taken to the streets in Marseilles, Lille and Toulouse.

The march yesterday was one of several protest rallies this month. Students marched and occupied universities on March 14, with police called in to evict them. About one million students, union members and civil servants marched on March 7 in one of the biggest protest rallies in France in about 10 years.

The police said about 250,000 protesters took to the streets yesterday, with more than 30,000 in Paris. Student unions put the number at about 500,000. About 272 students were taken into custody for questioning, said Patrick Hamon, a spokesman for the national police.

``These were not demonstrators; these were thugs,'' Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, said yesterday. ``We arrest them and we punish them.'' After student demonstrators dispersed yesterday afternoon, rioters gathered around the building of the Sorbonne in a violent clash with the police, reports Bloomberg.


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