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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)

In the park across the street, hundreds of riot police clad in black uniforms and carrying shields advanced toward groups of suspected troublemakers against the backdrop of the Hotel des Invalides, the low-slung Foreign Ministry building and the golden statues standing sentry at the Invalides Bridge traversing the Seine River.

The attacks at the corner of Rue Saint Dominique and Rue Fabert, just a short walk from the Eiffel Tower in Paris's affluent and touristy 7th arrondissement, followed a pattern that has emerged in the last few days of marches.

While the demonstrations have been orderly and peaceful, groups of 200 to 300 youths who police say do not appear to be participating in the organized marches have appeared suddenly during concluding rallies, taunting police and creating havoc.

Police have speculated that the gangs may be from the poor suburban areas that erupted in riots last fall. In those disturbances, youths across France -- many of them immigrants or French-born children of immigrants -- burned thousands of cars and hundreds of public buildings and private businesses to protest government indifference to the joblessness and lack of social services in their communities. Little of that violence spilled over into Paris or other urban centers.

Both the suburban riots and the ongoing student demonstrations have been devastating to Chirac's government and could destroy the presidential aspirations of his party's two leading candidates -- Villepin and his rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy was blamed for fueling last fall's riots with derogatory and inflammatory comments directed at youths in the suburban housing projects.

Villepin attempted to capitalize on Sarkozy's political misfortunes by pushing a law he said was intended to give companies greater incentive to hire young people. Now, many members of Villepin's party are distancing themselves from the prime minister. French newspapers on Thursday began reporting leaks from anonymous government officials that Chirac is threatening to fire Villepin if he does not resolve the crisis quickly.

The law, scheduled to take effect in April, would allow employers to fire workers under age 26 without cause during their first two years on the job.

Under existing law, it is impossible to fire even the most incompetent workers without huge financial liabilities for companies. College students, other young people and unions say the new law discriminates against the young by denying them the job security that older workers have.

Even as Ethuin, the bike rental shop owner, surveyed the damage along his block Thursday afternoon, he couldn't bring himself to criticize the young people whose demonstration brought the violence to his doorstep.

"They have no jobs," he said. "It's not their fault."

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