-  Sunday 20 September 2020

    Strike sends France closer to abyss

    Sun 26 Mar 2006
    FRANCE faces a week of chaos with a strike set to paralyse a nation already shaken by furious protests against new employment laws. And criminal gangs from Paris have begun a spate of crimes in the centre of the city while police are occupied with the protest marches. Horrified Parisians have found themselves the victims of robberies and violence even in some of the smartest areas of the city and some of the best-known tourist spots.

    Britons have been warned by the Foreign Office to avoid Paris because of the risk of violence. Student leaders yesterday snubbed an invitation to talks with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, dramatically increasing the likelihood of further strife this week.

    Villepin made the new plea for talks yesterday, saying he was ready to discuss the most contentious points of a youth jobs plan that has sparked repeated violent protests and the strike action. He also proposed more scholarships for students to help them between graduation and their first jobs.

    "I hope that, through dialogue, we can rapidly find a solution," Villepin said. The leading high school and university student unions had refused to meet Villepin and delivered him a letter instead. The students said they were angry that Villepin said he was ready only to discuss changes to, not withdrawal of, the law - which makes it easier for companies to hire, and fire, young workers

    "This is serious: it's a joke to propose dialogue in this manner," said Julie Coudry, president of the Student Confederation. The largest student association, UNEF, also refused talks, while two smaller, less representative student unions agreed to meet Villepin.

    The lack of any breakthrough left France facing the prospect of increased chaos amid widespread transport disruptions in Tuesday's strike. It remained unclear how Villepin would extricate himself from the crisis and calm the nationwide swell of student protests that has led to blockades at dozens ofuniversities, violent clashes with police and hundreds of arrests. The law is aimed at reducing high youth unemployment by giving employers more flexibility and encouraging them to hire. It allows companies to fire young workers in the first two years of employment without giving a reason.

    Villepin said he is ready to discuss modifying its most criticised aspects: the length of the trial period and the conditions of how employers would break off a job contract. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday urged unions and the government to reach a compromise through Villepin's offer for talks. "I urge all the parties involved to take this outstretched hand because nobody, and I mean nobody, will come out a winner if there are no discussions and no compromise," he told party members.

    Sarkozy's appeal for calm on both sides will be seen as a thinly veiled snub to Villepin. The two are bitter political rivals. In total, there have been 1,420 arrests and 453 police officers injured since clashes first broke out on March 11, Sarkozy added. In addition to the prospect of continued student protests and this week's strikes, the authorities are having to contend with the spectre of disaffected youths from the outskirts of Paris coming into the centre of the city to wreak havoc. Last summer and autumn France's suburban youths rioted on a nightly basis, burning cars and buildings and hurling missiles at police. The belief is now that these same groups of youths are heading for the centre to commit crimes, hoping that police will be tied up overseeing the students.

    While the authorities regard both the students and the suburban youths as a challenge to be kept under control, the youths have had no qualms about attacking the students, whom they regard as being another kind of target. Youths with baseball bats have attacked students and others hurled concrete chunks at riot police, who responded with baton charges and tear gas. Violence has flared in the shadow of such famous tourist spots as the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral, and districts such as the upmarket 7th arrondissement. British travellers have been warned to avoid some of France's most popular tourist spots as a result of the disturbances.

    The Foreign Office was urging Britons to check where demonstrations were expected to take place, and stay clear of planned protests. It also warned that travel plans may be disrupted by next week's mass strikes. The Foreign Office updated its advice to travellers to France in the light of the continuing protests. The advice reads: "Demonstrations against the French government's new employment law, some of which have become violent with missiles being thrown and cars and property being set alight and destroyed, continue to take place in some parts of central Paris, some of the city's suburbs and in other cities throughout France.

    "Employee and student unions have called for a further day of mass demonstrations and strikes throughout France on Tuesday 28 March 2006 which may disrupt some essential services, including transport links. "You are advised to check the latest position with your operator and to avoid any areas where demonstrations are planned or taking place," the Foreign Office added. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said the advice was meant to be descriptive rather than proscriptive and people were encouraged to decide for themselves whether to travel or not.


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