French students marched, chanted and whistled in renewed nationwide protests today against a new labour law, as the government tried to maintain a united front for this pivotal test of the country’s direction.
Tens of thousands of university and high school students turned out for marches in several cities, many wearing irreverent T-shirts mocking the government and waving enormous banners demanding the repeal of the law.
The escalating protests centre on a new job contract that allows employers to fire young workers within their first two years without giving a reason. This is designed to give employers flexibility, which would encourage them to hire more young people.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proposed the idea after riots in October and November as a way to help underprivileged youths find jobs. But students fear it will erode coveted labour protections and leave the young by the wayside.
Throngs of upbeat students massed on Place d’Italie in southern Paris today, banging drums and huddled excitedly on the crisp late-winter day, as the sun intermittently peeked out from the clouds.
“You can’t live with a knife at your throat,” said 21-year-old film student Sophie Cojan, taking umbrage at the idea that young workers can be let go for no reason.
Like many protesters, Cojan, wearing a black plastic bag to illustrate her perception that young workers are disposable, said that while France needed reforms, she did not see why young people should bear the brunt of any change.
“If reforms are needed, then everybody needs to compromise,” she said. “There have to be equal sacrifices on all sides.”
Students marched in Marseille, Grenoble, Rennes and Bordeaux by afternoon, and more protests were planned elsewhere.
The university at Toulouse closed its doors after clashes between students who wanted to shut the school in protest and those who wanted it kept open. Students hurled chairs and forced windows open in the melee, university president Henri Roussillon said.
About 100 students in Rennes in burst into the city hall and refused to leave, while fellow protesters marched outside. The university in Rennes has been closed for six weeks as students boycott classes to protest the law.
Many protesters were airing a litany of grievances beyond the job contract. More than 100 students on bicycles blocked streets around the Louvre Museum in Paris protesting a reduction in the number of sports teachers in schools.
President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday urged talks between ministers and labour leaders. Villepin, taking the brunt of the fallout, rallied ministers around the contested law at a government meeting last night.
If the government faces down this wave of protests, the conservative Villepin and his ideas for revitalising France will have scored a major victory heading into next year’s presidential race. If not, Villepin’s presidential ambitions may be shot and the governments’ reforms discredited.
“Villepin, you’re toast – the students are in the streets!” chanted students at Place d’Italie.
The prime minister has refused to withdraw the jobs measure, but was seeking ways to make it more palatable. Villepin’s office said he was to meet Thursday night with the presidents of universities, who have urged negotiations to end the standoff.
Labour Minister Gerard Larcher defended the government’s decision not to consult unions before devising the law, saying it was hurrying to respond to unemployment problems exposed by the riots.
But Julien Fredet, a 17-year-old high school student who came to Paris from the suburb of Provins for the march, accused the government of ramming through the law.
“They’re meant to listen to the voice of the people but this is more like a dictatorship,” he said.
The opposition Socialists were to present an alternative plan to boost youth employment in parliament.