March 19, 2006

French protests grow over youth labor law

Students joined forces with teachers, workers, retirees, opposition politicians and union leaders in more than 150 cities and towns throughout France on Saturday in the largest nationwide protest against the government's new labor law for young workers.

A number of public figures joined in, including Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, former Culture Minister Jack Lang and Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet.

The demonstrations were the climax of a week of protests that have shut dozens of universities and confronted Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin with one of the most serious crises in his 10 months in office.

The giant left-wing CGT workers union estimated that 1.5 million people protested nationwide; the Interior Ministry put the total at more than 500,000, with 80,000 in Paris.

Protesters pledged to continue until the government backs down.

Bernard Thibault, the CGT leader, said, "If they don't listen to us, we are going to have to think about moving to a general strike across the entire country."

Jean-Claude Mailly, the leader of the leftist union Force Ouvriere, said in a telephone interview after the protest, "The prime minister must understand that he must renounce" the labor law "before a true dialogue can begin."

The protesters want the abolition of a new law -- known as the First Employment Contract and set to take effect in April -- that allows employers to fire workers under age 26 without cause during the first two years of employment.

Designed by the government to help ease the crisis of high unemployment, particularly among poor youths after riots last fall in the suburbs, the law is seen by its opponents as a step toward eroding long-cherished employment rights and benefits. Protesters point out that the law was pushed through parliament without debate and charge that it is age discrimination. They have called it the "Kleenex contract," saying young workers could be discarded like facial tissue.

Unemployment in France is at almost 10 percent, and 23 percent of French citizens under 26 are jobless, one of the highest rates in Europe. In some major suburbs, the figure is nearly double that.

On Friday, President Jacques Chirac appealed for the marchers to show calm and respect, and police officers in riot gear were out in full force throughout France on Saturday.

Authorities were on alert for what they called professional thugs, after street fights broke out late Thursday in Paris. Police used tear gas and water cannons to quell the violence.

Some vandalism and violence were reported in Paris, Marseille, Lyon and elsewhere Saturday, but the protests mostly were peaceful.

About 300 people have been arrested over the last week. More than 100 police officers and 21 protesters have been injured.


Post a Comment

<< Home