France Prepares For a General Strike

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

PARIS, March 27 -- France prepared for widespread worker strikes on Tuesday that will target almost every facet of public life, from transportation systems to neighborhood cigarette shops, in an escalation of protests against a controversial job law.

At the Place de la Republique in central Paris on Monday, maintenance teams pried up the metal grills protecting trees and carted away loose paving stones -- anything that could be turned into a weapon in the huge commercial square where the Paris rally is scheduled to end Tuesday. Police warned shop and restaurant owners to close their businesses and shutter their windows.

With the government and unions refusing to soften their positions over a law that allows employers to fire workers under age 26 during their first two years on the job, police were preparing for the largest demonstrations in three weeks of protests.

The government announced Monday that it expects striking rail, bus and subway workers to cause major disruptions, as will air traffic controllers, workers at electricity, gas and telephone companies, and school employees. In addition, banks, neighborhood cigarette shops and post offices are set to close. Newspapers will not be printed for Tuesday distribution, according to union officials.

Both sides in the conflict viewed Tuesday's general strike as pivotal in the standoff, which threatens the stability of President Jacques Chirac's government and the presidential ambitions of his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, the author of the contentious law, due to take effect next month.

Some officials fear the protests could reignite the violence that swept through the country's poor suburban areas last fall. Youths from primarily immigrant families torched thousands of cars and hundreds of government buildings and private businesses in what many participants called a show of outrage against government neglect.

While street demonstrations are a fixture of French urban life, the protests that student unions began three weeks ago, now joined by labor unions, are the largest in years. Just over a week ago, an estimated 1 million people took part in demonstrations in 150 cities.

Last week, hooded youths infiltrated the concluding rally of a march in the heart of Paris, setting cars ablaze, smashing shop windows and hurling stones, boards and garbage-container stands at riot police.

That violence and outbursts in other French cities have alarmed citizens and officials. The images of burning cars and bat-wielding vandals "is not at all helping us," said Clement Boudin, a 23-year-old student at the Sorbonne University and a leader of the National Student Union of France. He worked in the organization's cluttered headquarters Monday, juggling two phones and chain-smoking Marlboro cigarettes.

Even as his group condemned the violence, Boudin and many other student union officials have been reluctant to criticize the youths from poor suburban communities that have infiltrated the cause. "We can understand it to a certain extent -- that kind of violence from people completely excluded from the system," Boudin said. "They don't have any other means to express themselves."

Government officials said the new law is intended to encourage employers to hire more young people by denying them some of the inflexible job protections that cover older workers. Unemployment overall in France is just below 10 percent; among young people it is 23 percent, but rises to 40 to 50 percent in poor suburban areas.

A survey conducted by the Ipsos polling institute for the daily newspaper Le Monde and France 2 television said that 63 percent of respondents opposed the government's decision to stick by the new law. About half of those polled, however, said they could support the law with some modifications.

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