Some 2,000 angry students massed on railroad tracks in Paris Thursday,
halting international train traffic in a fresh push to force a new youth labor
law off the books.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin refused to say whether the measure would
Students invade the
Toulouse train station, southwestern France, Thursday April 6, 2006.
Students and unions have been in a weeks-long standoff with the
conservative government over the law, which will make it easier for
companies to hire and fire young workers. [AP]
Villepin spoke more clearly about his own destiny, brushing off growing
speculation that he would resign.
President Jacques Chirac "gave me a mission, and this mission, I will lead it
to the end," Villepin told a news conference. "All the rest is pure speculation
Calling for calm, he said he was listening to the voices of discontent over
his reform aimed at denting sky-high joblessness among youth by making it easier
for employers to hire and fire younger workers. Lawmakers from the governing
Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, met for a second day with unions and
students in search of a way out. Protesters are demanding the measure be
"The immediate priority, as we all know, is restoring calm," Villepin said.
"It is time to get out of the crisis."
The job law has inspired disruptive protests at hundreds of universities and
high schools and spurred massive demonstrations and violence by some protesters.
The law originally provided for a two-year trial period during which
employers could fire youths under 26 without cause, a measure meant to spur
hiring. Protesters say it would make young employees disposable.
Stepping up wildcat disruptions, students set up a pre-dawn blockade Thursday
that halted a convoy of parts for the Airbus A380 jumbo jet, the world's largest
airliner and the crown jewel of European aviation.
Students paralyzed all train traffic at the Gare du Nord station in Paris for
nearly two hours, blocking trains to and from London, Belgium, the Netherlands
and Germany. Some 200 police in riot gear moved the protesters out, allowing
thousands of passengers packed into the station to start their travels.
Protesters earlier occupied the tracks of another Paris station, the Gare de
l'Est, for an hour. In the eastern city of Strasbourg, several hundred students
blocked the Pont de l'Europe bridge that links France and Germany.
There was some violence during the evacuation of some 450 students blocking
rails at a train station in the southwest city of Toulouse, and four protesters
and a police officer were hospitalized, officials of the local prefecture said.
The officer had been hit with a stone. The Sud railway workers union denounced
the force used by police as "totally out of proportion."
"This is very irritating, but I can understand it," said John Ring, a
40-year-old French businessman at the Gare du Nord who was trying to get to The
Hague, Netherlands. "What I can't understand is how the government would allow
the situation to get to this point."
Villepin relentlessly defended the job proposal for weeks until Chirac signed
the controversial measure into law last weekend but ordered the talks with labor
and student groups.
Villepin refused to prejudge the outcome of negotiations, appearing to back
down from his previous, inflexible stance.
"I am pragmatic. In this time of dialogue it is important to be open," he
said. "I am listening."
But the prime minister insisted that the 23 percent youth unemployment rate,
which climbs above 50 percent in depressed, heavily immigrant neighborhoods, is
at the heart of many French problems, including riots last fall.
"It is my responsibility, as head of the government, not to allow such a
situation go unanswered," he said. "Our country today needs action."