French President Jacques Chirac urged on Friday immediate negotiations between the government, students and unions to defuse escalating anger over a new labor law that sparked nationwide marches and clashes with police.
"The government is ready for dialogue. For my part, I hope it starts as quickly as possible," Chirac said during a ceremony at the presidential palace.
About 250,000 people took to the streets in some 200 demonstrations around France on Thursday, in a test of strength between youth and the government of 73-year-old Chirac.
Most of the violence and the 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.
Fifty-one police and riot officers were injured, and a total of 272 people were detained nationwide, 187 of them in Paris, the Interior Ministry said.
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 jewellery store in the melee. The clashes died down by late Thursday, and no major overnight violence was reported.
"There was a demonstration that went smoothly and then there were a few delinquents who came to pick a fight," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters.
The next major test was due to come on Saturday, when unions and students planned to march together.
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 students' anger focuses on a new form of job contract championed by Villepin that will allow 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 per cent among young adults and around double that in some of the depressed suburbs that were shaken 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 labour protections and leave the young by the wayside.
Jean-Louis Borloo, minister in charge of social cohesion, on Friday urged negotiations to find a way to make the law more palatable. He said employers should be required to give a reason before laying off new workers.
"I don't doubt for an instant that we are capable, among responsible adults, of taking the necessary steps to find a solution," he said on France-2 television.
Villepin said on Thursday that 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.
Thursday's protests in Paris began peacefully, with students whistling, chanting and beating drums.
Later, however, tension mounted and police and rioters waged a back-and-forth battle amid acrid clouds of tear gas outside the Sorbonne on the Left Bank.
Several hundred youths threw Molotov cocktails, paving stones, metal crowd-control barriers, and tables and chairs taken from nearby cafes. Cars were overturned or torched.
(China Daily March 18, 2006)