Violence erupts, travel disrupted by strike
Paris ? More than 1 million people poured into the streets across France and strikers disrupted air, rail and bus travel Tuesday – even shutting down the Eiffel Tower – in the largest nationwide protest over a youth labor law.
Scattered violence erupted in Paris, and riot police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse several thousand youths who pelted them with stones and bottles after an otherwise peaceful march.
Police made 787 arrests around the country – 488 of them in Paris, National Police Chief Michel Gaudin told The Associated Press. Injuries in the capital were tallied at 46 demonstrators and nine police officers.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy later invited some 200 police officers, some still wearing their protective gear, to the Interior Ministry for wine and snacks.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. “Mission accomplished.”
Unions and the leftist opposition joined in solidarity with the angry students for the one-day strike, increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to withdraw the measure that makes it easier to fire young workers.
Although Villepin held firm, cracks opened in his conservative government. Presidential hopeful Sarkozy, in a clear break with Villepin, suggested suspending the law to allow for negotiations.
With the government in crisis, President Jacques Chirac canceled a trip planned for later in the week to stay in Paris.
Police and organizers’ estimates for the number of marchers varied greatly, but both showed that the protest movement is growing.
Police said 1,055,000 people took part in more than 250 protests nationwide, including 92,000 in Paris. The organizers’ total was closer to 3 million, with 700,000 at the march from the Left Bank to the heavily policed Place de la Republique.
Elsewhere, 31,000 marched in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, 28,000 in the southern port of Marseille, 26,000 in the Alpine city of Grenoble, 17,000 in Lyon; 28,000 in the western city of Rennes, and hundreds of thousands in dozens of other cities and towns, according to police.
Riot police, under orders to arrest as many troublemakers as possible, moved aggressively in Paris to prevent a repeat of the intense violence of past demonstrations.
The violence was not confined to Paris. In Rennes, capital of Brittany, protesters threw stones and bottles at police and attacked cars and street signs, while authorities in Grenoble dispersed youths with tear gas and rubber pellets.
Marchers ranged across all age groups, from students with “Non” painted on their faces, to older union militants. Many said they wanted to defend the status quo.
“Young people are sacrificed in the name of the economy, and we are here to fight against it,” said Maxime Ourly, 18, a literature student at the Paris march. “We don’t know what will happen in the future, and we want to control our futures.”
Students and labor unions say the labor law will erode France’s cherished workplace protections. Set to take effect next month, it would let companies fire employees under 26 without reason in the first two years on the job.
Under the current law, it is very difficult to fire anyone unless the company is facing bankruptcy or other dire financial difficulties, or if a worker has repeatedly committed grievous mistakes on the job. Many firings go to the courts, where judges often rule in favor of workers.