Even as government prepares to talk, violence rocks Paris

24th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 23, 2006 (AFP) - Violence erupted in central Paris again Thursday as rioters took over a protest march over a controversial labour law, hurling rocks and bottles at police and lighting cars and shops ablaze.

PARIS, March 23, 2006 (AFP) - Violence erupted in central Paris again Thursday as rioters took over a protest march over a controversial labour law, hurling rocks and bottles at police and lighting cars and shops ablaze.

The chaos on the Invalides esplanade, a chic central neighbourhood dominated by government ministries, came as students pressed on with a fourth day of demonstrations nationwide, even as the embattled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin gave ground by offering talks with trade unions and student groups.

Police said in the early evening that 420 people had been arrested across France Thursday, a third of them in the capital, mainly for violence, vandalism and attacks on security forces.

In Paris 141 people were arrested after gangs of masked youths hurled projectiles, smashed shop windows and set fire to cars, police said.

Bands of masked youths, who appeared not to be part of the main protest march, threw stones and metal bars at firemen called to a put out a blaze in a nearby shop. Police sealed off the bridges on the nearby river Seine and lobbed tear gas canisters at the rioters.

"Violence is the only way of making yourself heard," said Baptiste, a youth from a Paris suburb observing the demonstration. "If (the government) wants to have a go at us, we'll have a go back."

Some 220,000 people, by official count, took part in the protests. Organisers said 450,000 people had participated.

Clashes also took place between police and protesters in the Mediterranean port of Marseille, the cities of Rennes, Grenoble and Lyon, and the Paris suburbs of Savigny-sur-Orge, Creteil and Rueil-Malmaison.

Sixty people were injured nationwide, including 27 police officers, according to statistics released in a statement, while one 21-year-old man was taken to hospital in Paris with serious head injuries.

Protests against the government's contested First Employment Contract (CPE) have repeatedly turned violent, but the government said the youth-dominated demonstrations and marches had been dwindling since the first major shows of force earlier this month.

The disturbances came as Villepin's government began to give first hints of conciliation in the crisis, with the premier preparing to hold open-agenda talks with the main trade unions on Friday.

In a letter Villepin promised that the agenda of the talks would be "completely open," and in their reply the unions said they "reaffirm their demand for the CPE to be withdrawn before we agree to dialogue or negotiation on employment, job insecurity and the future of the youth."

France's three main employers' organisations told AFP they had also been invited to attend talks with the prime minister immediately after his meeting with unions.

Villepin also wrote to student leaders asking them to talks at his residence next week, his office said.

The prime minister has come under growing criticism — even from within his ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) — for failing to respond to the growing campaign of popular opposition, and Thursday's initiative was the first sign of a search for a compromise.

An open-ended contract that can be terminated within the first two years without justification, the CPE was conceived by Villepin as a tool against France's high youth unemployment rate which is can reach more than 50 percent in the high-immigration suburbs hit by last year's riots.

But it is opposed by an alliance of students, unions and left-wing political parties, who see it as a breach in France's hard-won system of employee protection. They have been demanding its complete withdrawal as a precondition for ending their protests.

A day of nationwide strikes and more demonstrations is planned for Tuesday.

The measure was voted through parliament two weeks ago as part of a wider equal opportunities law, and is now awaiting approval from the Constitutional Council — the body that rules on the constitutionality of laws — before coming into force.

Villepin, 52, who was appointed by President Jacques Chirac 10 months ago, has staked his political future on implementing the CPE, and it was still unclear how much he would be willing to compromise.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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