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Violence erupts in French student protests

Written by: Staff
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PARIS, Mar 17 (Reuters) French police used teargas and water cannon when violence erupted as students turned up the heat on Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin over a jobs law, while his government struggled to defuse the crisis.

Stone-throwing protesters clashed with police at the end of a march by several thousand university and high school students in Paris and later outside the Sorbonne university yesterday. A kiosk was set ablaze and several shop windows were smashed.

Protests across France have gathered in momentum since hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out on March 7 against the law, which critics say reduces job protection for young people. The protests have been largely peaceful so far.

Student leaders said 300,000 to 600,000 marched across France and that 64 of the country's 84 universities were hit by the protests. Officials reported 247,500 protesters nationwide.

''CRS = SS!'' chanted protesters at the Sorbonne, comparing the riot police to the leading Nazi troops. At least eight riot police were injured in the unrest and several dozen youths, many of them hooded or masked, were hauled away by police.

The protests could hurt the conservative Villepin's hopes of running for president in 2007. He says the law will help reduce unemployment among the young, now running at 22.8 percent, more than twice the overall national rate.

Opinion polls show Villepin's popularity has tumbled during the biggest test of his 10 months in office.

Street protests can make or break governments in France.

Protests in 1995 badly undermined the then conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe, who lost snap elections two years later.

MORE PROTESTS PLANNED Trade unions plan another action day on Saturday and hope to top the one million protesters they estimated took part in the March 7 protests. Police estimates were half that figure.

Police fired teargas after 100 students briefly occupied a town hall in the western city of Rennes on Thursday. Thousands of students marched in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille and in Bordeaux in the southwest.

In Paris, police in riot gear fired teargas at several dozen youths pelting them with stones after the main march ended at a square only a few blocks from Villepin's Matignon Palace office.

Nearby boutiques and the elite Sciences Po university closed as a precaution as the protests signalled hardening opposition.

''Chirac, Villepin, Sarkozy, your trial period is up!'' read one banner in Paris, referring to President Jacques Chirac, his prime minister and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Some students daubed ''Anti-CPE'' on their faces, a reference to the so-called ''First Job Contract'' that allows employers to dismiss workers under 26 during a two-year trial period without having to give a reason.

Student and union leaders have spurned an offer of talks over the law from Villepin, who railroaded the measure through parliament. They say he must back down.

''I am open to dialogue within the framework of the law and to improve the First Job Contract,'' said Villepin.

But Villepin has vowed to stand firm over the law. ''I will do it to the end because I believe in this measure,'' Villepin said in an interview with Paris Match magazine.

With no end in sight to the standoff, ministers have offered six-monthly reviews of the law in an effort to defuse tensions.

''Perhaps it isn't the best solution, perhaps we could improve it, but at least we're moving forwards,'' Finance Minister Thierry Breton said on RMC radio.

France's unemployment rate is one of the highest in Europe at 9.6 percent and more than twice that for under 25-year-olds.

It tops 40 percent in some run-down neighbourhoods.

Surburban riots last year were widely blamed on high youth unemployment in poor areas.

REUTERS SK RAI0535

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