Protest Turns Violent in Heart of Paris

A man throws a trash bag holder toward torched cars at the end of a large Paris rally against a law making it easier to fire young workers.
A man throws a trash bag holder toward torched cars at the end of a large Paris rally against a law making it easier to fire young workers. (By Benoit Tessier -- Reuters)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 24, 2006

PARIS, March 23 -- It was just the scene the French government had been dreading: burning cars seven blocks from the Eiffel Tower, shop windows smashed along one of the capital's toniest streets, and columns of helmeted riot police advancing across the greensward of a prominent tourist venue.

Antoil Ethuin, 48, stood outside the shattered windows of his Bike n' Roll rental shop Thursday, stunned by the destruction of the worst violence in two weeks of student protests in Paris and other French cities.

"My country is broken," said Ethuin, gazing at the smoldering automobile carcasses a few yards away and the carpet of glass shards, broken dishes and computer pieces covering the sidewalk in the heart of one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. "I never imagined I would ever see this in Paris."

Thursday's violence came at the end of a demonstration by tens of thousands of high school and college students protesting a new job law. The unrest intensified a political crisis that now threatens to unravel President Jacques Chirac's government -- much the way previous French governments have been felled by strikes and street protests when they attempted even modest reforms of the country's costly welfare state.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin -- author of the contentious law that would make it easier for companies to both hire and fire young workers -- has scheduled an emergency meeting with the country's most influential labor unions Friday in an effort to defuse the crisis.

The demonstrations have underscored the widening divide between the French government and its people at a time when France is losing both economic and political clout on the global stage. Street protests and general strikes, often occurring in the spring, have long been an accepted political ritual in France, and they now have become a symbol of the country's inability to reform a stagnant economy hobbled by inflexible labor laws, high taxes and a corpulent welfare system.

It is a crisis also facing other countries across Europe as governments of the left and the right have similarly attempted to alter their costly systems of generous health, unemployment and welfare benefits; most, like that of former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, have failed in the face of widespread resistance to change.

On Thursday afternoon, as a crowd of as many as 140,000 young people and others prepared to end their march in the large park fronting the gold-domed Hotel des Invalides housing Napoleon's tomb, gangs of hooded and masked youths darted out of side streets, setting cars ablaze, flipping others upside down, breaking store windows and throwing rocks and stones at police and firefighters, according to witnesses.

Riot police broke up the groups of rampaging youths with tear gas as acrid, black smoke filled narrow streets and billowed above the city skyline.

Police said 60 people were injured in the clashes, including 27 police officers, and 141 people were arrested.

The shellshocked owner of the Shanghai Restaurant overlooking the Esplanade des Invalides stood outside the jagged glass of his doorway, dejected and slump-shouldered. Broken dishes and pots of white and purple flowers littered the street. Inside, splintered chairs and table settings covered the restaurant floor.

Nearly a dozen stores, restaurants and apartment buildings were attacked and damaged. Firefighters struggled to extinguish the flames of three burned-out cars. Four other vehicles had been overturned or severely battered.

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