More than 500,000 march in France to protest jobs plan

More than 500,000 students and workers marched in Paris and other French cities Saturday in the biggest show of anger yet at a jobs plan that has led to street violence and threatens to weaken the government.

Youths set a car ablaze, broke a shop window and hurled stones, golf balls and other objects at police during the end of the Paris protest, the biggest known march. Police said 80,000 people took part in the demonstration while organizers said it drew 350,000 people. Up to 14 arrests were made, police said.

French police put the number of protesters around the country at 503,600. Unions organizing the demonstrations claimed that 1.5 million people took part.

For the second time in three days, students this time joined by unions and employees used marches to press conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to withdraw the measure, which could take effect in April. Strikes have already paralyzed 16 universities.

President Jacques Chirac has pushed Villepin to act "as quickly as possible."

"If by (Saturday night), the government doesn't withdraw this contract, we'll continue," student union leader Bruno Julliard said.

"We are not disposable. We deserve better," said Aurelie Silan, a 20-year-old student who joined the massive protest in the French capital.

The plan, known as the "new jobs contract," is meant to increase employment among less privileged youths by making the labor market more flexible.

However, it does away with classic protections. Students fear the jobs law will leave youths more vulnerable than before, and eat away at long-standing measures that protect employees as France primes itself to better compete in a globalized world.

"The main thing is that the contract not be applied," said the head of the powerful CGT union, Bernard Thibault, who has already raised the threat of a general strike.

The massive and boisterous Paris protest crawled in full sunshine from the Denfert-Rochereau square in the south to the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris. Riot police monitored the march.

In Toulouse in southwest France, between 21,000 and 40,000 people marched against the jobs plan to cries of "No to a government that makes students (and) workers fodder for employers." In Lyon, in the southeast, police put the number of demonstrators at 10,000, but organizers said 25,000 participated. Between 8,500 and 20,000 protested in the southern city of Montpellier.

Organizers said 160 marches were staged nationwide.

In Marseille, extreme leftist youths climbed the facade of City Hall, replacing a French flag with a banner reading "anticapitalism." Police used tear gas to disperse them, making several arrests.

The university closures and disruption of classes, and street violence, has put intense pressure on Villepin to react to the growing crisis. On Friday night, a group of university presidents met with Villepin and called on him to withdraw the jobs plan for six months to allow for debate.

Chirac has called for immediate negotiations between the government and students and unions, while calling the contested measure "an important element in the policy of fighting unemployment", reports AP.


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