Riot police fired rubber pellets and tear gas at youths who pelted them with stones and torched cars in the heart of Paris Thursday, a violent turn in nationwide protests against a new labor law that brought nearly a quarter-million people onto France’s streets.
Police and rioters waged a back-and-forth battle amid acrid clouds of tear gas outside the Sorbonne University on the Left Bank. Several hundred youths threw firebombs, chunks of pavement, metal crowd-control barriers, and tables and chairs taken from nearby cafes. Five cars were overturned, and several were torched.
Police responded with a water cannon, tear gas, baton charges and rubber pellets to disperse the rioters, who formed a very small minority of demonstrators. Paris police said they took 150 people into custody, and 35 officers were injured.
Earlier, the protest had been boisterous but peaceful, with tens of thousands of students whistling, chanting and beating drums.
In all, police said some 247,000 protesters participated in nearly 200 marches across the country — a test of strength between France’s youth and the conservative government of 73-year-old President Jacques Chirac.
Eight officers were injured in Paris and 10 were hurt elsewhere, police said. They estimated 33,000 marchers in Paris. France’s main student union estimated nearly four times that and more than 500,000 marchers in all across the country.
The groundswell of protest poses a major test for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his ideas for revitalizing France.
He will have scored a major victory heading into next year’s presidential race if the government faces down the unrest. If not, his presidential ambitions may be finished and the government reforms discredited.
‘Villepin, you’re toast’
Unions and students plan to march together on Saturday. Protesters hollered Thursday for the law’s appeal, shouting “Villepin, you’re toast — the students are in the streets!”
Their anger focuses on a new form of job contract championed by Villepin that will allow employers to fire young workers within their first two years in a job without giving a reason.
The government says the flexibility will encourage companies to hire thousands of youths, bringing down unemployment rates that run at 23 percent among young adults and around double that in some of the depressed suburbs that were shaken by weeks of riots last fall.
The job contract was one of the government’s responses to that violence. But students fear it will erode France’s coveted labor protections and leave the young by the wayside.
“You can’t live with a knife at your throat,” said 21-year-old film student Sophie Cojan, taking umbrage at the idea that young workers can be let go for no reason.
Cojan, who like many protesters wore a black plastic bag to show that the new law would make young workers disposable, said that while France needs change, young people should not bear the brunt of it.
Students disrupted rail traffic in Bordeaux and marched in Marseille, Grenoble, Rennes and elsewhere. In the eastern town of Nancy, a small band of youths threw stones at police and vandalized cars, police said.
The university at Toulouse closed after clashes Thursday between students who wanted to shut the school in protest and those who wanted it kept open.
About 100 students in Rennes were dislodged from city hall, where they had camped out since morning while fellow protesters marched outside.
2,000 march on Sorbonne
After the Paris march broke up, some 2,000 demonstrators moved to the capital’s famed Sorbonne University, the site of previous clashes in recent days, where further violence erupted between stone- and bottle-throwing youths and police firing tear gas.
Villepin, Chirac’s supposed preferred successor, said he was “open to dialogue, in the framework of the law, to improve the first job contract” — but showed no sign of withdrawing the measure.
Villepin’s office said he was to meet Friday night with the presidents of universities, who have urged negotiations to end the standoff.