French Students Hit Streets To Protest New Labor Law

Students in Rennes, in western France, march to protest implementation of a new law that will make it easier to fire young workers.
Students in Rennes, in western France, march to protest implementation of a new law that will make it easier to fire young workers. (By Vincent Michel -- Associated Press)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 17, 2006

PARIS, March 16 -- An estimated 250,000 students took to the streets of Paris and major cities across France on Thursday, escalating a political rebellion by the country's younger generation against a government that is floundering in its attempts to restructure a moribund economy.

Some protesters wore black garbage bags to symbolize their charge that the government treats young people as disposable workers. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, but at the end, about 250 people clashed with riot police in a popular Parisian tourist and shopping area.

The protests have expanded rapidly in the past week, from a few campus demonstrations to turnouts in 80 cities and towns Thursday. They could undermine the political party of President Jacques Chirac ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary election campaigns, political analysts here say.

Strikes and street protests are as common as spring showers in France. But the student rallies have been particularly troubling to the government because of their rapid spread, the threat of participation by labor unions and the historical power of students in France. A student protest that began at Paris's famous Sorbonne university in 1968 and spread to schools and factories across the country led to the resignation of President Charles de Gaulle.

This week, students were protesting a newly passed law that has the support of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a leading presidential candidate from Chirac's party. The measure, due to go into effect in April, will make it easier to hire and fire young people at a time when the youth unemployment rate averages 23 percent.

The protesters' anger focuses on provisions that will allow companies to fire employees under 26 at any time during their first two years of work, without cause.

"They're offering us nothing but slavery," said Maud Pottier, 17, a student at Jules Verne High School in Sartrouville, north of Paris, who was wrapped in layers of scarves as protection against the chilly, gray day. "You'll get a job knowing that you've got to do every single thing they ask you to do because otherwise you may get sacked. I'd rather spend more time looking for a job and get a real one."

Business leaders complain that existing French labor laws make it virtually impossible to dismiss incompetent employees without giving them prohibitively costly severance packages. As a result, the leaders say, many companies are either relying increasingly on temporary workers or not hiring at all.

Many economists blame the strict laws for the country's lifeless economy.

The catalyst for the new law was the wave of rioting that swept cities across France last fall. Young men and boys from low-income, suburban, immigrant housing projects where the unemployment rate tops 40 percent burned cars, public buildings and businesses in a three-week spree of anger directed at what the youths considered an unresponsive government.

The violence severely damaged the reputation of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- another likely presidential candidate and Villepin's main rival within the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party.

The new law has drawn a mixed reaction among unemployed youths who lack college educations and live in France's poorest communities. But it is strongly opposed by college students, who say it discriminates against young workers by not giving them the same protections as older ones.

"This is an alternative to unemployment that isn't acceptable," said Boris Canepa, 22, who studies health safety and the environment at the University of Paris XIII in the northern suburban area of Saint-Denis, where last fall's riots began.

About 200 students from the city of Rouen in northwestern France descended from train cars in Paris on Thursday chanting and singing, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words "knockdown prices," a reference to their belief that the government is selling out young workers at bargain prices.

More than 100 students on bicycles blocked streets surrounding the Louvre Museum, piggybacking on the main student demonstrations to protest cuts in school sports coaching staffs.

Near the end of the demonstration, about 250 youths threw rocks at police and set fire to a newspaper kiosk in the square between the Bon Marché department store and the city's renowned Hotel Lutetia. Police fired tear gas to break up the group.

In the southern city of Toulouse, students supporting the marches and strikes fought with youths who were arguing to keep the local university open. Police dispersed protesters in Rennes, in the west, who attacked cars and set garbage bins ablaze. Other demonstrators temporarily disrupted rail traffic in the southwestern city of Bordeaux and at a Paris station.

The French Interior Ministry put the total national turnout at nearly 250,000. The national students' union said about 330,000 people took part.

Most of the nation's colleges and universities have been shut down or partially closed in recent weeks because of protests. Last Saturday, Paris police stormed the campus of the Sorbonne to forcibly remove demonstrators.

Villepin has drawn criticism from within his own party over the new law and has dropped in popularity polls to a record low of 36 percent. After a meeting at the Labor Ministry on Thursday, Villepin said he was "open to dialogue" about the law but did not indicate that he would back away from it.

During the demonstration in Paris on Thursday, Antoine du Couessin, a third-year history student, stopped among the banners and chanting protesters to snap a photo of a man peering down at the street from his balcony. "Back to work!" the man shouted angrily at the demonstrators.

The man was Couessin's father. "He's 100 percent behind" the proposed law, Couessin said. "It's really difficult at home right now. I just go straight for my bedroom."

Researcher Marie Valla contributed to this report.

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