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Paris job law rally turns violent, PM woos unions

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PARIS, Mar 23 (Reuters) Rampaging French youths set fire to cars and looted shops in Paris today, marring protests against a youth jobs law that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, in a conciliatory move, agreed to discuss with unions.

Aides said Villepin would meet senior trade union officials on Friday to try to defuse a crisis that has triggered a national strike threat and drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters on to French streets.

In Paris, riot police fired tear gas in clashes with youths, dubbed ''casseurs'' by the French, in the Invalides areas near the Foreign Ministry, Reuters witnesses said.

Youths threw stones at police and set fire to the door of an apartment building in running battles at the end of a largely peaceful rally by thousands of students and workers against the CPE First Job Contract.

''This time, there are lots of young criminals on the march who are there to steal and smash. This discredits the movement,'' said Charlie Herblin, a 22-year-old worker on the march.

Dozens of young people, many wearing masks or hoods, overturned cars, smashed shop windows and robbed student demonstrators of clothes and mobile phones, witnesses said. Police said they had arrested 42 people.

Clashes also erupted in the western city of Rennes, where about 300 to 400 youths battled with police.

Tens of thousands of students marched in cities throughout France, including Tours, Orleans and Marseille, as part of rolling protests designed to maintain pressure on Villepin to axe a contract they say will create ''Kleenex workers'' whom employers can throw away at will.

Unions have called a one-day national strike for Tuesday to demand the withdrawal of the CPE, which allows employers to fire people aged under 26 at any stage during a two-year trial period, without stating a reason.

WRITTEN INVITATION In response to a written invitation for a meeting by Villepin, leaders of the five main labour confederations said they would meet the prime minister tomorrow, but they reiterated their demand for the CPE to be withdrawn.

President Jacques Chirac has increased pressure on his prime minister to renew contact with unions, said the Le Parisien newspaper, suggesting Villepin's job was now at stake.

''If things don't change very quickly, the prime minister will be fired,'' it quoted one government source as saying.

Villepin's popularity has slumped and analysts say the protests are damaging the prime minister's thinly veiled ambitions to run in the 2007 presidential election.

Responding to prodding from Chirac, Villepin told union leaders in his letter he wanted a meeting ''as quickly as possible'' and would not restrict the agenda. Until now he has said he would only discuss how best to enforce the new law.

In the letter, Villepin said he wanted to discuss ''without preconceptions'' ways to tackle the fears raised by the CPE.

Villepin has championed the law as a key tool in the battle to cut youth unemployment of 23 per cent. Ministers have offered to halve the trial period and require bosses to justify layoffs.

Protests over the measure have disrupted three-quarters of the country's 84 universities and Education Minister Gilles de Robien said looming exams could be postponed until the autumn.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Villepin's rival to contest the presidency under the conservatives' colours, on Wednesday broke ranks over the CPE contract, calling for a six-month trial period in an effort to ease the crisis.

Sarkozy fears the protests that have spread across France could boost the Left and sink the conservatives' chances in both the presidential and parliamentary polls due next spring.

Reuters SY BD2340

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