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.
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."