Calm returned to Paris early yesterday after riot police teargassed scores of demonstrators in the wake of a nationwide demonstration by people who took to the streets of France to protest a widely unpopular new labor law.
Hundreds of young demonstrators defied police following a peaceful march through Paris which attracted up to 350,000 people, hurling objects at officers who eventually drove them back, charging the crowd and using tear gas grenades.
Vehicles were set on fire and overturned, and nearby windows smashed. There were 166 arrests, while seven policemen and 17 demonstrators were injured in the unrest at the eastern Place de la Nation that lasted for six hours, police said.
About 500 students then marched on Paris' Sorbonne university in the Latin Quarter, the scene of earlier clashes.
Chanting "Liberate the Sorbonne!" the students charged and removed some barriers erected by police to block access to the university, and threw a Molotov cocktail at a riot police van, but a fire was quickly extinguished.
Police drove back the students with water cannon, and then deployed in front of the remaining barriers to prevent their advance.
In Marseille hundreds of militants demonstrated, some trying to set fire to the entrance to the town hall before police drove them back. One officer was injured and six youths were arrested, police said.
There were also clashes in Lille with police responding with tear gas, as well as Clermont-Ferrand and Grenoble.
Unions said 1.5 million demonstrators took part in more than 150 rallies across the country against the government's First Employment Contract (CPE) -- drawing students, workers, pensioners and families. The interior ministry put the overall turnout at just over 500,000.
The CPE, a contract for under 26-year-olds that can be terminated in the first two years without explanation, is supposed to encourage employers to take on young staff.
Drawn up in the wake of riots late last year in high-immigration city suburbs -- where youth unemployment can be as high as 50 percent -- the CPE was approved by parliament last week as part of a wider equal opportunities law.
But the opposition says the CPE is a step back from hard-won labor rights, and will make it more difficult than ever for young people to find long-term employment.
"The demand for withdrawal of the CPE is gathering ever greater force. Seventy percent of the French want it withdrawn, and 80 percent of young people. The government is in a dead-end," Bernard Thibault of the CGT union said.
"Today we can clearly see that the mobilization is stronger than ever. Either the government listens to reason and withdraws the CPE, or it will be obliged to do so next week -- because we will be back in the street," said Bruno Julliard of the UNEF students' union.
The FIDL high-school students' union promised a new day of action on Thursday if the government does not back down.
Previous demonstrations in the last week ended in street fights and clouds of tear gas in Paris's Latin Quarter, violence which the authorities blamed on outside trouble-makers from the extreme left and right.
Two weeks of protests have been building steady momentum, with strikes affecting some 60 of the country's 84 universities and nationwide demonstrations on Thursday drawing up to half a million university and high-school students.