French Students Protest Controversial Labor Law

Thousands of students marched in Paris and other French cities on Thursday, protesting a new labor law that would make it easier for employers to fire young workers. Students and union workers have been demonstrating against law for a week, and riot police have had respond to some protests.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News it's DAY TO DAY. In France today, students in many cities staged the largest protest yet against a new government employment policy. There have been these student protests all week. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris that the French Prime Minister, hmmmmm...

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Dominique de Villepin.

CHADWICK: Yes. Says the new law will cut youth unemployment.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

Known as the First Employment Contract, the measure gives companies the flexibility to fire under-26-year-olds with no questions asked within a two year, instead of the traditional three month trial period. The law was supposed to boost hiring in a country where youth unemployment hovers at 23%. But young protestors like Ann Laurais(ph) and Vincent Caseaux(ph) say even though it may be difficult to find a job, the new law would cut them out of the benefits that come with having a permanent contract.

Ms. ANN LAURAIS (Protestor): (Through translator) This youth contract means we will have to wait to be able to settle down and have a normal life and have kids.

Mr. VINCENT CASEAUX (Protestor): (Through translator) The first job contract means we can't really get a life because we won't be able to secure a bank loan. So no money, no house, no car, nothing.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BEARDSLEY: What started as a fairly limited student protest movement early last month has since grown into a broad-based coalition of anti-government forces uniting university students, labor unions and the opposition Socialist party.

(Soundbite of chants)

(Soundbite of French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Last weekend, in scenes that reminded the nation of May 1968's student protests, French news broadcasts showed footage of riot police clashing with demonstrators who had occupied Paris' Sorbonne University. But today's movement is very far from 1968, says Hugh Dent(ph), an editor at Agence France-Presse.

Mr. HUGH DENT (Editor, Agence France-Presse): In 1968 the movement was largely inspired against the whole notion of the consumerism and growth and bourgeois way of living one's life. The problem today is exactly the opposite. They want the middle class way of living. They want all their guarantees of job security wrapped up in a parcel from the age of 17, 18, 19.

BEARDSLEY: Following the latest Sorbonne protest, Villepin went on national television to explain his job contract in an attempt to calm the situation.

Mr. DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN (Prime Minister, France): (Through translator) We are faced with a precarious situation of high youth unemployment which is only getting worse. I want France to try and advance, so I ask the French people to be pragmatic, to try new solutions, and to move forward.

BEARDSLEY: But Villepin's television appearance only spurred the students on. The growing protests are Villepin's greatest test since taking office 10 months ago on a promise to cut chronic unemployment. While his job measure was conceived with a disadvantaged youth who rioted in French suburbs last November in mind, it has instead tapped into the fears of university students who feel their diplomas no longer guarantee them a job. Nicolai Tenzarre(ph) runs one of France's few political think tanks.

Mr. NICOLAI TENZARRE (Director, Political Think Tank): (Through translator) France is not unreformable, but successive governments cannot do it because they are out of touch with reality and the needs of the people they are serving. They come up with these reforms behind closed doors and they think because it makes sense to them, that's enough to convince the public.

BEARDSLEY: While Villepin, who has his eye on the French presidency, says he will not let the street undo the work of the Parliament. With a presidential election just a year away, there is already talk of how long he will be able to hold out against the protestors. He summoned his ministers for a crisis meeting last night. Following today's demonstrations, one million people are expected to take to the streets on Saturday. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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