Police fought running battles with rioters in central Paris last night as youths attacked officers with bangers, bottles and concrete at the end of a mass demonstration against a youth employment law that has caused a political crisis for Jacques Chirac's ruling party.
Trade unionists and student leaders said up to three million people took to the streets across France yesterday - the second time in eight days that the country has seen its biggest street demonstrations in almost 40 years. The protests, including one by hundreds of thousands of students and scholars who marched through central Paris, were mainly peaceful.
French riot police grapple with a student in Rennes during yesterday's nationwide protests against the country's new employment laws. Photograph: Daniel Joubert/Reuters
They were marked by a carnival atmosphere somewhere between a victory parade for the demonstrators and a funeral march for the "first employment law" as the ruling party prepared to begin negotiating its way out of the crisis.
Police fired teargas in Paris's Place d'Italie last night after groups of students and youths, some from the suburbs, attacked police lines. At Saint-Lazare station, riot police pulled over people disembarking from the suburbs, searching bags and checking identities. At the universities, students vowed to maintain the barricades over the Easter holidays, which begin this weekend.
Demonstrators marched in around 280 French towns and cities. In Rennes, where one university faculty has been blockaded for two months, students blocked railway tracks closing the station for almost an hour and police clashed with demonstrators who had gathered outside the ruling UMP party offices. About 60 students lobbed eggs and other objects at police in the northern city of Lille.
The "easy hire-easy fire" measure at the heart of the protests was pushed through parliament last month, in an attempt by the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, to address France's crippling youth unemployment of 23%. Paradoxically, the law made it easier for businesses to sack workers aged under 26 after two years without explanation. The government believed employers would be quicker to take young workers on if they were spared rigid employment rules that make it difficult to get rid of staff.
After two months of protests in which hundreds of schools and universities have been blockaded, closed or occupied and workers joined in a national strike, Mr Chirac signed the law on Sunday but asked for changes: the probation period for workers would be only one year and employers must give a reason for dismissal. He also ordered talks with unions.
Because the amended law will not come into operation until May, this allows a window in which trade unionists insist the law must be shelved and rewritten.
The measure has become a political battlefield for the potential candidates in next year's presidential election. Mr De Villepin, Mr Chirac's favoured successor, told the national assembly yesterday that he would not "throw in the towel". But a poll to be published in L'Express news weekly tomorrow shows his approval rating has slumped to 28%, one of the steepest monthly falls on record according to the polling company BVA. His approval rating was 48% in January
His rival, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has emerged as a possible broker to end the conflict, charged with bringing unions to the negotiating table. His allies have briefed the press this week that the law is dead and buried, or at least suspended, damaging Mr De Villepin.
France's main unions agreed to talks last night but insisted that they wanted the law withdrawn.
"There is new blood in this movement," the CGT union chief, Bernard Thibault, said yesterday. "I hope these rallies will help us deal the fatal blow."
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