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Chirac seeks to defuse anger over new labor law

Wants government talks with students

PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac yesterday urged immediate government talks with students and unions to defuse escalating anger over a new labor law that sparked nationwide marches and clashes with police.

A quarter of a million people took to streets in some 200 demonstrations around France on Thursday in a test of strength between youth and the conservative government of 73-year-old Chirac. Union and student leaders planned more demonstrations today, hoping to rally more than a million people.

''The government is ready for dialogue," Chirac said at the presidential palace. ''For my part, I hope it starts as quickly as possible."

The students' anger focuses on a new type of job contract that would make it easier for employers to fire workers in their first two years on a job. But the protests reflect broader discontent with the government and France's direction.

Chirac stood by the law, calling it ''an important element in the policy of fighting unemployment." The new contract ''will create new jobs for young people who are today largely left out of the job market," he said.

Chirac appealed to all sides to remain calm during today's demonstrations, when unions and students planned to march together.

In Thursday's protests, most of the violence and arrests were around the Sorbonne university in Paris, where police fired water cannons and tear gas at youths, who pelted them with stones and set cars on fire.

Authorities said 92 police officers and 18 protesters were injured. A total of 272 people were detained nationwide, 187 of them in Paris, the Interior Ministry said.

Student leaders said 300,000 to 600,000 university and high school students took part in Thursday's action. Officials put the number at 247,500 nationwide.

The country's main student union condemned the violence, which police blamed on fringe groups of radicals and anarchists -- and a few petty criminals who broke into a jewelry store in the melee. ''There was a demonstration that went smoothly, and then there were a few delinquents who came to pick a fight," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said.

If the government faces down the escalating groundswell of protest, Chirac's prime minister and supposed preferred successor, Dominique de Villepin, and his ideas for revitalizing France will have scored a major victory heading into next year's presidential race.

If not, Villepin's presidential ambitions may be finished and the government's reforms discredited.

The contract Villepin has championed allows employers to fire young workers within their first two years in a job without giving a reason.

The government says the flexibility will encourage companies to hire young people, bringing down unemployment rates that run at 23 percent among young adults and around double that in some of the depressed suburbs that were hit by weeks of riots last year.

The job contract was one of the government's responses to that violence. But students fear it will erode France's coveted labor protections -- which make it very hard for employers to fire workers -- and leave the young by the wayside.

The new law is opposed by 68 percent of French people according to a public opinion poll published in the daily Le Parisien yesterday, an increase of 13 percentage points in a week.

Jean-Louis Borloo, minister in charge of social cohesion, suggested yesterday that employers should be required to explain why workers are fired. Employers ''should obviously justify" any firings, he said on France-2 television.

But his ministry later backtracked, insisting Borloo was standing by the law.

Villepin said Thursday he was ''open to dialogue, in the framework of the law, to improve the first job contract" -- but showed no sign of withdrawing the measure, as protesters demand.

Sarkozy, who took a hardline position with suburban rioters last year, said most of the students in the current demonstrations had protested peacefully.

''There were a few hundred delinquents who came spoiling for a fight," Sarkozy said.

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