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France riots as it finally talks

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor

PARIS, March 24 (UPI) -- French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin met labor and student union leaders for the first time Friday in an attempt to resolve the crisis over his controversial new labor law, as scattered outbreaks of violence turned ugly with torched cars and looted shops in the heart of Paris.

The violence scarred what had hitherto been orderly and even dignified protest marches, at which students were joined by parents and grandparents. They reflected the widespread dissatisfaction with the new law that gives employers the right to fire young people within two years of hiring, without explanation or right of appeal to a labor tribunal.

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There was little immediate prospect of a political settlement. The unions insist that the law, which was passed late at night and tacked onto another bill in what was widely seen as an underhand maneuver, be withdrawn. Prime Minister Villepin, under intense pressure from his own political party and from President Jacques Chirac, has signaled some readiness to compromise on details but insists that the law be respected.

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Divisions have begun to emerge openly within the government. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who sees Villepin as his rival for the succession to Chirac in next year's presidential elections, has ordered the police to show restraint, to the extent that some university presidents have hired private security agencies to evacuate buildings occupied by striking students.

The gendarmes and special riot police, who come under a different ministry, have shown no such restraint, and came under attack Thursday evening with stones, concrete blocks and metal stanchions.

The politicians are now jostling openly for the succession to Chirac, widely seen as a lame duck, and his characteristic decision to walk out of a European Union meeting in Brussels Thursday when a French business leader spoke in English has inspired more mockery rather than nationalist admiration.

Francis Beyrou of the centrist party and Francois Hollande of the Socialists, the main opposition party, have joined calls for the new labor law to be withdrawn, and the biggest beneficiary of the crisis so far has been Hollande's long-time partner Segolene Royal, who now has a strong chance of becoming France's first woman president next year.

She is now one of the most popular politicians in France, with an approval rating of 65 percent in the latest Ipsos poll. Sarkozy has 58 percent approval but a high 39 percent disapproval rating. De Villepin languishes at 35 percent, and the anti-globalization campaigner Jose Bove, who is tipped to become the candidate of the Green Party, has 47 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval.

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The most intriguing poll matched Segolene Royal against the two conservative leaders in the first round of a presidential election. She would comfortably beat de Villepin by a margin of 35 per cent to 22 percent, but Sarkozy would beat her by 36 percent to 28 percent. And both polls showed extreme right-wing parties getting around 20 percent.

Political and media circles in Paris focused on these issues of party rivalry and individual standing and the general sense of malaise with France's stubbornly stagnant economy, rather than on the extraordinary situation of French youth.

The explosions of anger that rocked the immigrant housing estates last fall and have seen France's universities occupied and their students on the streets this month reflect the dramatic way in which the young are now paying for the job security and comfortable retirement of the old.

From official figures, over 80 percent of French young between the ages of 20 and 25 would qualify as below the poverty level, if not for parental assistance. And many receive no such help. There are now 600,000 people under the age of 30 who qualify as "poor" or "extremely poor," which means an income of less than $120 a month. For the first time in French history, those over the age of 60 now have a higher share of national income than those under the age of 30.

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The national unemployment level is just over 10 percent. But for those under 25, it is 22 percent, and for the children of immigrants, 46 percent, and for those without professional qualifications 40 percent. The level of illiteracy among the young has grown to 16 percent.

This is the broader social context within which the riots of last fall and of this spring have taken place, and ironically de Villepin's new labor law is meant to reduce youth unemployment by making it easier for employers to hire them. But the students have understandably focused rather on the way the law does this by making it easier to fire them. In their protest marches, they call themselves "the Kleenex generation" -- used once and discarded.

So it is interesting that there has not been more violence, and that most marches until late this week were calm and orderly. It seems that other groups are now infiltrating the demonstrations for their own purposes.

Cars were set alight and windscreens and shop windows smashed in the Invalides district of Paris Thursday when small groups of militants, said not to be students by the student organizers of the march, turned aside from the march to wreak havoc.

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Some were from small left-wing revolutionary and anarchist groups, and others were young Arabs and blacks from the housing estates that unleashed a month of serious rioting across France last fall. Wearing hoods to avoid identification by police cameras, the young immigrants plundered the student marchers, stealing cell phones, purses and personal music systems.

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