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French Students at Forefront of Jobs Law Protests


France has been roiled by waves of demonstrations in recent weeks against an unpopular new job law targeting young workers. The latest and largest protest took place on Tuesday, when a million or more French, of all ages and backgrounds, took to the streets. The angriest denouncements are being voiced at universities and high schools around the country.

University of Paris 13 is a nondescript collection of cement buildings, a 10-minute train ride from Paris. It is one of more than a dozen public universities around the city, and on a recent afternoon the atmosphere at the campus center was boisterous.

Large banners draped the cavernous room calling for the repeal of the CPE, the popular shorthand for a new French law which makes it easier to hire, but also fire young, first-time workers. At a booth scattered with flyers, union leaders like 20-year-old Elodie Lemoigne were urging fellow students to continue opposing the job law.

Lemoigne says students like herself do not want the government to touch social protections. She says France's unemployment problem is not going to be addressed by creating job insecurity for young people. She wants nothing short of the repeal of CPE.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin says the law will reduce youth unemployment in France, where nearly one out of four people under 26 years is jobless. Although the legislation makes it easier to hire young workers, it also allows bosses to fire them, without cause, during their first two years on the job. Proponents of the measure hope businesses will be more likely to hire a young person because, if the student fails to perform properly, he can easily be dismissed.

Mr. de Villepin says he is willing to soften the legislation, but student and labor unions want it to be scrapped altogether.

That sentiment is shared by many students at Paris 13. At a recent student assembly, a stream of young men and women took turns criticizing the new law.

Students opposing the legislation have blockaded and shuttered high schools and universities around the country. But Paris 13 remains open, in part, says President Alain Neuman, because most students here are from working class backgrounds. They juggle jobs with their studies and cannot afford to make up exams later on.

But Neuman says he is worried that blockades and other problems will arrive here, as well. He says he senses a real despair among students at Paris 13, even if many will graduate with university diplomas. He says they are still worried about their future.

Studies suggest many young French are worried about their future. In one youth survey by France's IPSOS polling agency last September, nearly half the respondents equated globalization with fear. Young voters who feared they would lose jobs and benefits to new European Union members, also figured prominently in France's rejection of the European Constitution last year. Critics argue that France cannot afford to keep generous social benefits and remain competitive.

They include Julien Gomez, a history professor at Paris 13.

Gomez says the French society can no longer afford societal privileges. He says the French need to realize they have responsibilities.

Gomez supports the new job law, but he admits he is in the minority at Paris 13.

Still, interviews with students on campus suggest some are worried the protests are going too far. That is the sentiment of Achref Serbni, 19, a telecommunications student at Paris 13.

Serbni is against the job law, but he fears opposition here to it may turn violent. He says students who want to demonstrate should be able to do so, but others should have the right to go to class and study.

The government fears young protesters will turn violent and reignite the riots and arson attacks that swept across France, last October and November. Although Tuesday's demonstrations were largely peaceful, riot police in Paris clashed with roving bands of young thugs and arrested more than 700 people around the country.

So far, union leaders have rejected Prime Minister de Villepin's call for new negotiations. Many now want French President Jacques Chirac to intervene and help resolve the crisis.

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