Tens of thousands of students marched through Paris and other French cities on Tuesday, stepping up their opposition to a new law that makes it easier to hire -- and fire -- young workers.
In Paris, university and high school students, joined by teachers, workers, union members and Communist Party members, marched across town stopping traffic as they chanted slogans like "We're not cannon fodder" and "We're not young flesh for the boss." At one location near the Sorbonne in the heart of the Latin Quarter, the police clashed with small groups of protesters, dispersing them with tear gas.
More than half of France's 84 public universities remained either completely or partially closed on Tuesday because of student blockades, the Ministry of National Education said.
The Sorbonne, at the University of Paris, remained closed three days after riot police used tear gas to evacuate about 300 students. University authorities said the occupation had caused damages of between US$600,000 and US$1.2 million.
The protests are driven by two factors: domestic politics and the fear of change among France's middle and working class. This is not about promoting grand revolutionary ideals.
Designed by the government to help ease the crisis of high unemployment, particularly among disadvantaged young people in the suburbs, the law is seen by its opponents as a step toward eroding employment rights and benefits.
Opposition to the "first job contract" law, whose goal is to encourage firms to hire young people with little or no job experience, has confronted Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin with one of the most serious crises in his 10 months in office.
Under France's political system, de Villepin is the head of government and answerable to parliament. President Jacques Chirac, the head of state, is responsible for defense and foreign policy, and, whenever possible, tries to distance himself from domestic troubles. But he is expected to intervene when things get out of hand.
During a visit to Berlin on Tuesday, Chirac made his first public comments on the protests, telling reporters, "It goes without saying that I totally and unreservedly support the activities conducted by the prime minister and the French government."
De Villepin, whose approval rating has fallen to a record low of 36 percent in recent weeks, has become the target of opponents of the law. Even some members of his own UMP party have called on him to drop the hiring project.
He is widely expected to seek the presidency next year, but his candidacy could be crippled if the protests spin out of control and force the government to back down.
The students have the full support of both the parties of the left and the country's powerful unions, which contend that the law is unjust because it allows companies to fire workers under the age of 26 within the first two years of employment with little notice or severance.
Twenty-three percent of French citizens under the age of 26 are jobless; in some of the major city suburbs, which were wracked by riots lat last year, the figure is close to double that.