Students still refusing to relinquish the streets

16th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 16, 2006 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of students marched across France on Thursday to force the government to drop a contested youth jobs contract, in a standoff that has paralysed dozens of universities and pitted angry protestors against riot police.

PARIS, March 16, 2006 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of students marched across France on Thursday to force the government to drop a contested youth jobs contract, in a standoff that has paralysed dozens of universities and pitted angry protestors against riot police.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who championed the jobs scheme as a key tool in fighting youth unemployment, is facing the most serious test of his premiership over the growing wave of protests.

Unions, student groups and the political left say that the contract, which employers can break off without explanation in the first two years, is a licence to hire and fire at will.

Organisers said 15,000 people, many of them high-school students, marched in the Mediterranean city of Marseille Thursday morning, though police said the figure was half as much.

Large demonstrations also took place in the central city of Limoges, in southeastern Grenoble, southwestern Bordeaux and northern Le Havre, drawing some 15,000 people in all, with thousands more marching in a dozen other towns.

Security has been stepped up in the capital, where the authorities fear that troublemakers could infiltrate an afternoon march in the university quarter south of the river Seine.

Scuffles broke out early Thursday between police and a group of some 250 high-school students, headed to the Paris march from the northern suburb of Raincy, slightly injuring two officers and one student.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has urged police to use "only what force is absolutely necessary" if the protests get out of hand.

Scenes of violence erupted last week when riot police were called in to evacuate demonstrators from Paris' historic Sorbonne University, while 10 police officers were injured on Tuesday by stone-throwing students.

Thursday's student marches are a prelude to a day of joint union and student protests on Saturday, during which the head of the powerful CGT union, Bernard Thibault, has vowed to "step up a gear" in the stand-off with the government.

"There are more and more of us," the head of the UNEF student union, Bruno Julliard, told France Inter radio, saying he was "confident" the movement would succeed thanks in part to backing from high-school students.

Strikes and sit-ins have spread to two-thirds of France's 84 universities with 21 closed and 37 others disrupted, according to the education ministry, with protests reported in 80 high-schools in the Paris area alone.

Not all students back the protest movement, however, and clashes broke out in southwestern Toulouse Thursday between a group blockading the university and others angry at the disruption to their studies.

Several dozen students burst into the building at daybreak to try to end a sit-in, with students firing tear gas and hurling chairs and fire extinguishers at each other.

The university was closed following the incident, which a student union leader blamed on far-right activists, a charge denied by the anti-strike camp.

An open-ended contract for under 26-year-olds that can be terminated without motive in the first two years, the First Employment Contract (CPE) is designed to encourage employers to take on more young staff.

Villepin has insisted that the measure — passed by parliament last week as part of a broader law on equal opportunities drawn up after last November's riots — would be implemented.

However, he said Wednesday he understood the public's concerns and called for talks to begin between the government and labour leaders.

Employment Minister Gérard Larcher also said on French radio Thursday that "his door is open" for negotiations.

France has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe, with 23 percent of all young jobseekers out of work and the figure topping 50 percent in some of the high-immigration city suburbs hit by rioting last year.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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