Hundreds of thousands of French have taken to the streets in recent days to protest a new job hiring law championed by the country's conservative government. The unrest may be turning into a major political crisis for French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Considered a likely candidate in next year's presidential elections, Prime Minister de Villepin has watched his popularity plummet in recent weeks. The reason: A new hiring law, that allows companies to more easily fire first-time workers during the first two years of their employment. The government says the law will help create employment, but critics argue it discriminates against young job seekers.

The law has sparked outrage on the part of opposition lawmakers and labor union leaders across the country. Major demonstrations are scheduled this week. And Tuesday, opposition Socialist lawmakers filed a petition with the Constitutional Council - France's highest judicial authority - to get the jobs legislation repealed.

But the loudest critics are French students, who have been staging protests and blockading universities and high schools in recent days. Here is the typical reaction of one student, Arthur, who spoke to France Info radio from the southern city of Toulouse.

Arthur says French students do not agree with the system. The government must listen to us, he says. We are not going to back down.

Mr. De Villepin says he is listening to the students, and to other critics. He appeared on national television Sunday to defend the job legislation.

Speaking from Berlin Tuesday, French President Jacques Chirac gave his total and unreserved support to Mr. de Villepin. Even the prime minister's biggest conservative rival - Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy - is behind him.

Some observers say the protests are reminiscent of 1968 student demonstrations which paralyzed France. And the country is still recovering from riots last October and November, largely staged by ethnic-immigrant youths living in French housing projects.

The protests today are for very different reasons. But once again the younger generation in France is taking to the streets to try to change the system.