100s of thousands take to the streets across France
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across France this weekend to pressure the conservative government to discard a new law, which they say will erode job security.
The marches were mostly reported as festive and peaceful. Other reports indicate that youths pelted police with objects, overturning and setting fire to a car at the end of the main protest in Paris. Police fired many rounds of tear gas. Demonstrations were also reported in Marseille, Rennes and Lille, where police charged and teargassed crowds.
Rally organisers estimate the turnout across the country at over a million people, with around 500,000 of them in Paris. However, the Interior Ministry reported 503,000 nationwide, with 80,000 in Paris.
The protesters are demanding that the Government withdraw the "First Job Contract" (CPE) – which allows employers to fire workers under the age of 26 without explanation in their first two years on the job. The aim of this new law is to encourage businesses to employ more young workers, given that their employment will be more flexible and convenient in economic terms. In the western city of Rennes, students wore plastic garbage bags with signs declaring: "I am disposable."
The Paris march began with students in front and workers behind, but turned into a multi-generational mix including many parents who joined their teenage children. Banners declared "No to throw-away youths" and "Tired Of Being Squeezed Lemons." The actions are only the third time in almost four decades – after 1968 and 1994 – that students and workers marched together.
"I risk working for two years for nothing, just to be fired at any moment," said Paris student Coralie Huvet, 20. Unemployment is currently a major political issue in France. The French national average is 9.6 percent, and youth unemployment is nearly 21 per cent. The rate rises to 40-50 percent in some of the poor suburbs hit by several weeks of youth rioting last year.
Recent opinion polls show that 68 percent of French people oppose the new law, a rise of 13 percentage points in a week, and that French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's popularity has dropped six points to 37 percent.
Since the beginning of March, protests, occupations and direct action against the new CPE employment law in France have been increasing, with university and school students leading the dissent.
Railways have been blockaded, airports disrupted, and up to two thirds of France's universities have been occupied or disrupted, as well as many schools. Clashes with police have occurred throughout the country.