Rallies Across France Protest New Job Law

Students march in Paris against a law allowing firms to fire employees under age 26 at will during their first two years of work. After dark, some protesters clashed with riot police, but no serious injuries were reported.
Students march in Paris against a law allowing firms to fire employees under age 26 at will during their first two years of work. After dark, some protesters clashed with riot police, but no serious injuries were reported. (By Victor Tonelli -- Reuters)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 19, 2006

PARIS, March 18 -- Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched in anti-government protests Saturday across France, with the largest of the rallies ending in clashes between riot police and protesters at one of the largest plazas in Paris.

Teachers, unionized government employees and retired workers joined students in escalating demonstrations against a new law that would allow companies to fire employees under age 26 at will during their first two years of work.

Protesters jammed the streets of about 150 cities and towns in mostly peaceful, union-orchestrated demonstrations. On a perfect sunny day for a protest in Paris, families joined in the march, which began in an atmosphere of a friendly weekend outing of songs and chants with political overtones.

But as the hours-long parade drew to a close in the chill of the early evening darkness, several hundred protesters turned on police at the Place de la Nation in the southeastern part of the city, throwing stones, garbage and sticks at riot police who huddled behind protective shields.

Demonstrators smashed windows, burned a car and set a pile of boxes ablaze. City police said 14 protesters were detained and four officers were slightly injured in the standoff.

Union organizers said 1.5 million people participated in marches throughout the country, while police officials estimated the number at just more than 500,000.

The demonstrations have grown larger and have spread to more cities in recent days at the urging of France's powerful student and worker unions, creating a crisis for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his Union for a Popular Movement party as France heads toward presidential elections next year.

Villepin pushed the new law as a vehicle to prompt companies to hire more young people at a time when joblessness among that group averages 23 percent and exceeds 40 percent in some poor neighborhoods populated by immigrants and their French-born children. Villepin argued that under existing labor laws, employers were increasingly reluctant to hire young people because of job protections that make it all but impossible to fire workers, even if they are incompetent.

Young people and unions argue that the law -- expected to take effect in April -- will allow employers to discriminate against their youngest workers.

"It's always better to earn one franc than nothing," said Sophia Lamri, 23, a law school graduate interning at a law firm. "The government is just about to get rid of a social policy that took over a hundred years to build. Change shouldn't mean regression."

The new law has become the latest target of youth anger at a government that many young people believe has become increasingly divorced from them.

"People say the young people are lazy and can only think about how much money they'll make," said Jean-Francois Dessessard, who walked among the Paris protesters, one arm draped around his wife and the other resting on the shoulder of his 17-year-old daughter. "But they just want to have it like we had it when we were their age."

As the march passed the Prison de la Sante, inmates waved in support from behind wire mesh windows. A sign hung out one window declared "Chirac belongs here," a reference to President Jacques Chirac.

Researcher Marie Valla contributed to this report.


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