After more battles between police and rioters in Paris, stakes were raised in the struggle over France's contested youth jobs plan Sunday as union leaders threatened a general strike unless the government backs down.
Nationwide protests turned violent in Paris as union leaders issued threats of strike action
Union and student leaders gave Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin till Monday to withdraw his controversial First Employment Contract (CPE), which on Saturday brought out hundreds of thousands of opponents in at times violent demonstrations across the country.
The march through the capital ended in several hours of evening confrontations between riot police and masked gangs, who hurled projectiles, set cars alight and smashed shop windows and telephone booths.
Police fired tear-gas and made baton-charges to disperse demonstrators at the Place de la Nation in the east of the city, and later in the Latin Quarter used water-cannon to break up protesters trying to pull down a metal barrier barring access to the historic Sorbonne University.
Police said they made 167 arrests in the clashes, which were the worst since tensions over the youth jobs contract erupted two weeks ago. A total of 34 police officers and 18 demonstrators were injured, though none seriously.
Violent incidents were reported on the fringes of marches in other cities, including Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand and Grenoble.
Violence marrs day of widespread peaceful demonstrations
Violence erupted again on the streets of Paris Saturday
The disturbances marred a day that was hailed by unions as a major success in their campaign against the CPE, and on Sunday leaders vowed to step up the pressure in the days ahead if the youth jobs contract is not withdrawn by the government.
Campaign organizers were to meet Monday afternoon to assess the government's response, with the threat of a fresh escalation via a general strike now being openly brandished.
"Of course it is an ultimatum. The government and the president have effectively 48 hours to decide," Rene Valadon of the Workers' Force (FO) union said.
"Obviously we have to maintain the mobilization. For it to work we need an appeal from several unions for an inter-professional strike day," the FO's general-secretary Jean-Claude Mailly told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
"Today the prime minister is like a pyromaniac who sets fire to the valley and then retreats to the hill-top to watch," he said.
General strikes threaten to paralyze France
Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful General Labor Confederation (CGT), said that "if nothing moves we will propose preparing a day of general work stoppages in the coming days. Conditions are such that it should be a success."
An open-ended contract for under 26 year-olds that can be terminated without justification in the first two years, the CPE is meant to bring down France's chronically high youth unemployment rate by offering employers greater flexibility.
The labor plan was supposed to eradicate rioting not cause it
Conceived in the wake of last November's riots in high-immigration suburbs -- where less than one young person in two has a job -- it was approved by parliament ten days ago as part of a wider law on equal opportunities.
But the centre-right government has been stymied by a growing wave of opposition, with unions, students and left-wing parties calling the CPE a charter for employer exploitation and a breach of France's hard-won labor rights.
Repeated street demonstrations have been accompanied by strikes and sit-ins at most of the country's 84 universities. The Sorbonne -- centre of the May 1968 uprising -- has been the scene of several nights of clashes with police after it was closed by the authorities.
Prime minister seemingly adrift in sea of chaos
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin seems at a loss
Villepin -- who has made implementation of the youth contract a personal mission -- was Sunday closeted with advisers, amid widespread predictions that he will offer new adjustments to the text of the law without altering its essence.
On Saturday evening government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope again appealed for dialogue, and said: "It is possible to work on certain improvements, certain formulae to reinforce guarantees for the young."
President Jacques Chirac has also urged the two sides to open talks, but an increasingly buoyant opposition says that abandonment of the CPE is a precondition for negotiations.
The conflict over the youth jobs plan has turned into Villepin's most serious crisis since he took office ten months ago, and commentators agreed that his political future is at stake. The prime minister has been named as a possible contender to replace Chirac in next year's presidential election.
The latest polls show that 68 percent of the public is opposed to the CPE, while Villepin's satisfaction rating has fallen to 37 percent -- down 15 points in two months.