Protestors marched through French cities on Tuesday as opponents of a government youth jobs reform sought to kill off the measure for good, despite concessions from President Jacques Chirac.
"We are not rioters. Being jobless is our future" reads this student's banner in Nice
Unions and student groups have hit France's streets for a fifth day of nationwide protests to push for complete repeal of the unpopular First Employment Contract (CPE). It was signed into law over the weekend, but immediately suspended by President Jacques Chirac while a new version is drafted.
The law's opponents have been encouraged by the successful campaign that has brought millions of people onto the streets. Despite the first hints of talks to end the month-long crisis, they said it was not the time now to let up the pressure.
They predicted another large turnout would force the center-right government into giving new ground. Nearly 200 marches and rallies are planned across the country, with riot police on standby in Paris and elsewhere to head off the violence that has erupted on several occasions.
Protests hit domestic air travel
Commentators said the scale of Tuesday's demonstrations could determine the outcome of negotiations likely to open in the coming days between the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the opposition student-union alliance on a new law to supersede the CPE.
Commuters in Paris could still get to work on time on Tuesday
Although commuters on Tuesday faced some inconvenience from transport strikes, disruption was limited. Paris's metro system was operating almost normally and 70 percent of TGV fast trains were running.
Dozens of domestic flights were cancelled and there were some delays at Orly Airport.
In the northern port of Calais, ferries for England were prevented from leaving the quayside.
Prime minister accused of trampling on labor rights
Conceived by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin as a tool against youth unemployment -- which runs at 22 percent in France -- the CPE is a contract for under 26-year-olds that can be terminated by the employer without explanation during a two-year trial period.
It provoked a massive popular backlash, with opponents accusing Villepin of trampling on hard-won labor rights and railroading the measure through parliament without due consultation with unions and employers.
President Chirac has offered some concessions to the disputed law
In a bid to defuse one of the most turbulent episodes in his 11-year presidency, Chirac agreed on Friday to change the CPE's two most contentious provisions: reducing the two-year probationary period to one year and requiring employers to provide some written reason for dismissal.
In a sign of the shifting balance of power in the government, responsibility for organizing the new legislation was taken from Villepin and handed to his powerful rival, Interior Minister and UMP chief Nicolas Sarkozy, who opened contacts with unions over the weekend.
Unions willing to talk
Unions and student groups insisted the CPE's abandonment is a pre-condition for negotiations over a new law. But there were growing indications they could be drawn into talks. In a letter to union leaders, Bernard Accoyer -- head of the UMP bloc in the National Assembly -- said the agenda for talks would be completely open.
"There is no limit to our discussion," Accoyer said. "Everything is on the table. It is time to turn the page."
"Sarkozy has told us he is willing to discuss everything with no taboos," Francois Chereque of the CFDT union said. "Accoyer has said he is willing to hear our reasons why we want the withdrawal of the CPE. If this is the approach, then we will go to the talks."
On Monday, student leader Bruno Julliard said he would enter talks as long as there was a guarantee none of the CPE contracts would be signed pending the new legislation.