Huge Protest Puts France to the Test

Students occupy a train station in Rennes, in western France, during a national strike and protest. Unions estimated the turnout at 2.7 million; the government said it was about 1 million.
Students occupy a train station in Rennes, in western France, during a national strike and protest. Unions estimated the turnout at 2.7 million; the government said it was about 1 million. (By Daniel Joubert -- Reuters)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

PARIS, March 28 -- As many as 2.7 million demonstrators marched through the streets of French cities Tuesday in one of the country's largest protests in decades, as striking workers shut down the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera and disrupted train, bus and airline service nationwide in opposition to a new youth labor law.

The massive show of strength created new fissures in President Jacques Chirac's government, which early this month triggered the crisis by passing the measure to waive some of France's strict job protections and give employers new freedom to dismiss people under age 26.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, author of the law, told Parliament on Tuesday that he would not give in to "the pressure of the streets." But Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called for a delay in putting the law into effect to ease talks with labor unions.

Lawmakers from several parties warned that the size of the protests signaled a threat to the future of the government. The leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, said the government was "running the risk of confrontation with a majority of the country." Bruno Julliard, president of the National Student Union, cautioned: "We are in front of a tidal wave."

The country's largest single demonstration -- a gathering in central Paris's Place de la Republique that unions estimated at 700,000 -- underscored the divisions in French society. Gangs of youths from poor suburban areas swarmed among the students and workers, snatching cellphones and knapsacks.

Later, as screaming demonstrators ran from police water cannons and clouds of tear gas, men in business suits and women in fur coats watched from the balconies of luxury apartments high above the fray. Gray-haired diners at Les Freres Blancs restaurant sipped wine by candlelight, ignoring the frantic scenes unfolding outside the front windows.

The continuing protests also threaten to undermine France's tourism industry, just as it is starting to recover from a decline caused by rioting last fall in poor suburban communities populated primarily by immigrant families. Youths burned cars and attacked public and private buildings in what some said was anger at the government for ignoring their high unemployment rates and dismal living conditions.

On Tuesday, tourists inside the Holiday Inn fronting the Place de la Republique watched with expressions of horror as rows of black-suited riot police clashed with bottle-throwing demonstrators.

Thousands of other tourists suffered disruptions when striking workers closed the city's most famous tourist site, the Eiffel Tower, as well as the Paris Opera and other theaters. An estimated one-third of all flights to and from Paris airports were canceled and most others were delayed because air traffic controllers were striking, aviation officials said.

Parisians woke up to a morning without newspapers. The state-run radio, France-Info, one of the country's main news stations, played only music because technicians and reporters did not show up for work.

People who attempted to reach their workplaces grappled with commuting nightmares as only half of the suburban commuter trains were running and service on buses and subways was curtailed. Parents who took children to school found many teachers absent and some buildings locked. Services at banks, post offices and most government offices were limited.

Most of the demonstrations began in the afternoon. While official government estimates placed the number of protesters nationwide at about 1 million, unions put the figure at about 2.7 million. The government's figure of 92,000 participants in the Paris march seemed understated; broad columns of people marched into the square continuously for four hours.

The French government contends that the country's elaborate social safety net, including strict job protections, is too expensive and is holding the country back in global competition. Employers who have freedom to get rid of young employees they don't want would be more willing to hire in the first place, officials argue.

But Patrick Pion, a white-haired archaeology professor who joined Tuesday's demonstration in Paris, said the youth labor law has become a lightning rod for "all those who aren't satisfied with the current state of things" in France.

"It hit a very sensitive and symbolic target," Pion said. "The 16- to 26-year-olds -- our children -- and us workers."

"Everything's going wrong," agreed Khiter Sheba, 17, a high school student from a town east of Paris. "It's like France has the flu."

The protests are helping shape next year's presidential campaign. Prime Minister Villepin's likely chief rival for his party's nomination is Sarkozy, the interior minister, whose call for a delay in implementing the law, which is scheduled to take effect next month, represents a split with Villepin. A constitutional court is scheduled to rule Thursday on the law's validity.

The Interior Ministry said more than 4,000 uniformed and plainclothes law enforcement officers were deployed on Paris streets Tuesday in an effort to avoid the violence that accompanied a demonstration last Thursday in one of central Paris's most affluent districts. As that march was ending, stores were looted and vandalized and cars were set ablaze.

For much of Tuesday afternoon, the Paris demonstration resembled more of a festive parade than a protest. A jazz band aboard a truck led groups of demonstrators from across the country into the Place de la Republique, a traditional gathering spot for victorious politicians and protesters. The plaza features a statue of Marianne, a woman in flowing robes who symbolizes the republic and holds an olive branch aloft in her right hand.

But as the crowd swelled, chaos erupted. Riot police with shields and batons charged youths who were snatching cellphones. The thieves escaped by melting into the crowd.

Later, protesters threw bottles and sticks at police, who responded with tear gas and high-pressure streams of water. Some of the projectiles intended for the police smashed glass storefronts.

As one officer trained his water hose on protesters, he muttered to his colleagues: "Here we go -- the bad cops again."

Researcher Marie Valla contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company