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Student Discontent Runs Deep in France

March 21, 2006

PARIS (AP) _ When student demonstrators in France wear trash bags to protests, their message is: ``We’re not disposable.″ They’re angry about a new government job plan that will allow employers to fire them more easily. But that’s just the tipping point.

The unemployment rate for France’s young people is more than 20 percent, or twice the national average. Many college graduates must string together odd jobs, meaning they don’t dare move out of their parents’ homes or start families. Without a steady job, it’s extremely hard to rent an apartment or even to open a bank account.

Job competition from emerging markets _ the government’s key argument for the new law _ is far from most students’ minds. Their leaders say French workers cannot accept longer hours and lower pay on par with Asian economies.

``What the student demonstrations are saying is that the young refuse to live in the world as it is,″ said Bruno Julliard, the head of France’s main student association, UNEF.

Student groups have suggested earlier job training and individual job counseling, but there’s no consensus among young people on a radical way to solve youth unemployment.

The new law, which takes effect next month, allows employers to fire workers younger than 26 in the first two years on the job, without citing a reason. It offers a measure of flexibility the government hopes will spur employers to hire young people, but critics say it gives younger workers less job security and undermines France’s generous labor protections.

Bolstered by support from trade unions, students led a new protest Tuesday, marching across the Left Bank and shouting ``It’s the street that rules!″

Tensions mounted afterward as several hundred protesters tossed bottles and stones at riot police near the Luxembourg Gardens, and officers retaliated with tear gas. A few stragglers took advantage of the chaotic scene to steal cell phones and break mirrors off cars along the march route. About 10 people were taken into custody, judicial officials said.

Students have blockaded dozens of universities across France, prompting about 300 students to stage a counterdemonstration outside Paris’ famed Pantheon.

``We are not all in favor of the jobs plan, but we refuse to sacrifice our studies over it,″ said one demonstrator, 18-year-old Thomas Seince.

Along with this fall’s riots in France’s depressed neighborhoods, the protests have been a major test for conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and highlight the challenges faced by many European governments looking to reform their job markets to cope with globalization.

Villepin said Tuesday that unions and employers could discuss improvements to the contested ``first job contract″ _ but he refused to consider canceling it or substantially changing it.

``The law is well-crafted,″ he insisted in a meeting with youths.

The boisterous debate could shape the outcome of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Villepin’s popularity has plunged, and the Socialists have vowed to revoke the law if they return to power.

Attention also focused on a protester in a coma after Saturday’s demonstration. Union leaders claimed the 39-year-old man had been ``violently trampled by a police charge,″ but a top police union official said demonstrators had struck him.

``The entire country has plunged into a test of power, which could become very serious,″ Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Socialist leader in the National Assembly, told the lower house.

When Ayrault claimed that Villepin was driven by ``egotism,″ many ruling party lawmakers left the chamber, shaking their fists and shouting ``CPE″ _ the French acronym for the jobs contract.

Meanwhile, courts have begun intervening to stop the university blockades. A tribunal in southeastern France on Monday ruled that every student occupying Grenoble’s universities could face fines of $60 a day starting Thursday.

Another day of nationwide street protests is planned for Thursday, and trade unions called a national day of strikes for March 28 which are expected to affect sectors from travel to industry.


Associated Press Writer Paul Duke and Jean-Marie Godard in Paris contributed to this report.

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