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French PM to defend job law after student protest

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PARIS, Mar 12 (Reuters) French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin today prepared to defend his unpopular labour reforms after riot police stormed the historic Sorbonne university in Paris to end a protest over the new law.

Villepin was scheduled to give a major television interview a day after riot police smashed their way into the faculty's halls in the heart of the capital's Latin Quarter and dragged some 200 demonstrators from the building.

The students started their sit-in on Wednesday in the university, birthplace of the May 1968 student protest movement, to denounce moves to loosen France's rigid labour laws and make it easier for employers to hire and fire people aged under 26.

''This is what happens when you call for disorder,'' Education Minister Gilles de Robien said as he visited the Sorbonne's ransacked offices, holding up torn books at the site where a 1968 rebellion that weakened President Charles de Gaulle began.

The labour reforms are the brainchild of Villepin, a member of the ruling Gaullist UMP party, and came in response to widespread suburban unrest around France five months ago that was blamed in part on high levels of youth unemployment.

The First Employment Contract (CPE) would allow employers to sack a young employee after two years' trial without reason.

Villepin says these rules will make it easier for employers to take a risk on hiring a young person and create jobs.

But students see them as discriminatory and a threat to France's system of benefits and employment protection.

''We'll have no power of negotiation with the bosses. We want to have the same chances our parents did,'' said Pierrick Talguen, a 23-year-old sociology student from Nanterre.

A senior Gaullist figure, National Assembly speaker Jean-Louis Debre, who does not serve in government but whose voice is influential, raised the prospect of some compromise.

''The CPE will not solve everything. It can certainly be improved. But it is a way of getting young people out of their current impasse,'' he told Journal du Dimanche in an interview.

A week of mounting protests over the labour law, which was forced through parliament using a fast-track procedure, has sent Villepin's popularity tumbling.

His number two in the conservative government, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also seen as his main rival for the conservative nomination in 2007 presidential elections, cut short a trip to the French West Indies because of the protests.

Both men are anxious to avoid political mishaps in response to the rioting, after Sarkozy was widely said to have blundered by referring to last year's suburban rioters as ''riff-raff''.

Opposition Socialists said the government was out of touch and urged Villepin to back down on the labour reforms.

Reuters OM VP0605

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