Chirac appeals for calm after job protests turn violent

17th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 17, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac appealed for calm Friday after mass protests against youth job reforms erupted in violence, and as police prepared for even bigger weekend demonstrations.

PARIS, March 17, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac appealed for calm Friday after mass protests against youth job reforms erupted in violence, and as police prepared for even bigger weekend demonstrations.

Chirac called for Saturday's trade union and student marches — which are expected to draw up to a million people — to take place in a climate of "calm and respect for all" and for talks to begin "as soon as possible".

Speaking at an awards ceremony at the Elysée Palace, Chirac appealed to all to show "responsibility" to avoid a repeat of the violence that erupted at the end of Thursday's student demonstrations.

Between 250,000 and half a million people marched in 80 French towns and cities Thursday in a show of force over a new youth job contract, denounced as a licence to hire and fire at will by students, unions and the left-wing opposition.

Police made 300 arrests overnight, two-thirds of them in central Paris, where gangs of youths — described as outside troublemakers — fought running battles with police, vandalising cafes and sending a bookshop up in flames.

Several hundred people overturned cars and hurled firebombs at riot police on the capital's Place de la Sorbonne, as police repelled them with tear gas and water cannons, until calm returned early on Friday.

Ninety-two police officers and 18 demonstrators were injured in the clashes, according to police, and several officers were also hurt in street violence in the northern city of Rennes, where police made 19 arrests.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy blamed Thursday's violence on "thugs" and "hooligans" from the far-left and far-right, as well as young delinquents from the Paris suburbs, who he said had infiltrated the march in the capital.

"There were a few hundred delinquents out looking for a fight," Sarkozy told reporters after meeting police and firefighters in Paris overnight.

Seventy-seven people remained in custody in Paris on Friday, as Justice Minister Pascal Clement told prosecutors to be "firm" on the troublemakers.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who championed the First Employment Contract (CPE), faces the most serious test of his premiership over the wave of protests.

Villepin has repeatedly said he is open to talks but insists the measure — adopted by parliament last week as part of a law to promote youth employment drawn up after last year's suburban riots — will be implemented.

Opponents of the CPE, a first job contract for under-26-year-olds which can be broken off without explanation in the first two years, say it will entrench job insecurity among the young.

Unions organising Saturday's protests are riding a tide of public support, with 68 percent of respondents in a new CSA poll saying they want the government to withdraw the measure.

Chirac repeated his defence of the scheme, saying it was an "important element in fighting unemployment", which affects one in four French youths, and tops 50 percent in some of the high-immigration suburbs hit by riots last year.

He argued that the contract would "create new jobs for young people who are largely left by the wayside in the jobs market".

"It brings opportunities and new guarantees for young people in difficulty," Chirac argued, while also calling for the opening of talks with labour groups.

"The government, as you know, is ready for dialogue, and for my part I wish it to begin as soon as possible".

Strikes and sit-ins have spread to two-thirds of France's 84 universities as well as dozens of high schools — drawing a growing rumble of protest from students angry at the disruption to their studies.

Around 100 students from universities across Paris demonstrated in the Latin Quarter on Friday to demand an end to the student blockades of their faculties, while anti-strike student groups announced plans for a counter-demonstration on the Place de la Sorbonne on Tuesday.

The wave of protests has revived memories of the May 1968 student uprising, and have been seen as the sign of a deeper malaise among young French people worried about their future.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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