Sat, Mar 25, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Rioters and police clash in French labor protests

AP , PARIS

Rioters turned a park in front of Napoleon's tomb into a battlefield, as youths with baseball bats clashed with police wielding batons in rising protests over a new labor law a day before crucial talks begin yesterday between top unions and the French government.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and five leading trade unions were sitting down for the first time to discuss the "first job contract" since parliament passed it this month, sparking a wave of protests by students and organized labor.

The face-off over the law, which makes it easier for companies to fire young workers, has thrown the conservative government into a crisis and fanned student blockades at dozens of universities.

The unions accepted an invitation from Villepin to meet, but said they would only restate their stance and would not negotiate unless he scraps the law. Unions plan a national strike on Tuesday.

Sporadic clashes between youths and police in the last 10 days have been reminiscent of riots that swept across impoverished French suburbs last fall. The riots were blamed partly on youth unemployment -- which the government says the new jobs law is aimed at reducing by giving employers more flexibility and encouraging them to hire.

Police said 220,000 students and other youths marched nationwide in the latest in a string of protests on Thursday. The largest union of high school students, FIDL, estimated that 450,000 took part.

Hundreds of troublemakers tore up sidewalks, hurling chunks of concrete and debris at riot police on the Esplanade des Invalides in front of the golden dome under which Napoleon lies.

Others took advantage of the pandemonium to swipe cellphones or purses from peaceful protesters. Youths with baseball bats or sticks tore through the crowd, beating several people, their faces bloody.

"They're just standing there watching us kill each other," said Sarah Belhachumi, 18, huddling with two friends and complaining that officers did not immediately intervene.

Backed by trucks, a phalanx of hundreds of riot police, three men deep, pressed forward to drive back the protesters and block off the ornate Alexandre III bridge.

Paris police said 27 officers and 33 youths were injured.

National police said 420 people were arrested nationwide.

In Lyon, students disrupted traffic on two major highways. Police used tear gas on protesters in Grenoble, and groups of youths hurled stones at officers near Marseille's train station.

The law allows companies to fire young workers in the first two years of employment without giving a reason.

Villepin has said he is ready to discuss modifying the most criticized aspects of the law.

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