Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of French cities Saturday in a show of strength over a contested new labor law, as police deployed in force in Paris to head off the risk of violence.
Police were bracing for more violence in Paris as protests spread across France
The first of more than 150 demonstrations against the government's First Employment Contract (CPE) took place in the morning in provincial towns including Poitiers and Toulouse, but the focus was on the capital where a mass cortege moved off early afternoon.
Riot police were stationed in lines of buses near the course of the route from Denfert-Rochereau square in the south to Nation square on the other side of the river Seine. Workers removed rubbish-bins and metal grills as a safety measure against possible vandalism.
Demonstrations this week ended in street fights and clouds of tear gas in Paris's Latin Quarter, in violence which the authorities blamed on outside trouble-makers from the extreme left and right.
Unions and student leaders predicted at least a million would take part in Saturday's nationwide protests, and urged Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to heed the message from the country and withdraw his controversial measure.
Protestors demand government reverse
The protests are growing in number and intensity
"Today we can clearly see that the mobilization is stronger than ever. Either the government listens to reason and withdraws the CPE, or it will be obliged to do so next week -- because we will be back in the street," said Bruno Julliard of the UNEF students' union.
An open-ended contract for under 26-year-olds that can be terminated within the first two years without explanation, the CPE is supposed to encourage employers to take on young staff by removing some of the financial risks involved.
Drawn up in the wake of last November's riots in high-immigration city suburbs -- where youth unemployment can be as high as 50 percent -- the measure was approved by parliament last week as part of a wider equal opportunities law.
But the opposition -- which includes all the trade unions and a newly-invigorated Socialist party (PS) -- says the CPE is a step back from hard-fought labor rights, and will make it more difficult than ever for young people to find long-term employment.
Half a million students on the streets
The French government faces a real crisis over the labor law
Two weeks of protests have been building steady in momentum, with strikes affecting some 60 out of the country's 84 universities and nationwide demonstrations Thursday drawing up to half a million university and high-school students.
An opinion poll Friday showed that 68 percent of the public oppose the youth jobs plan, up from 55 percent just over a week before.
The campaign of opposition has developed into a serious political crisis for the 52-year-old prime minister, who has made implementation of the CPE a personal mission but has been criticized -- from even within his own Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) -- for failing to consult properly in advance.
Villepin has offered to add new "guarantees" to sweeten the pill and called for "dialogue", but opponents say they will not enter talks unless the CPE is first suspended.
French PM under pressure as crisis grows
Dominique de Villepin is under the spotlight as the riots rage
University chiefs who met Villepin on Friday night said that the prime minister appeared willing to make new concessions. "He realizes we are on the edge of a clash, a real clash," said Yannick Vallee, vice-president of the conference of university presidents.
"We asked him if he was ready to make a gesture to unblock the situation. He didn't tell us what gesture, but he seemed ready to listen and ready for a significant gesture," he said.
President Jacques Chirac has so far stood by the prime minister -- backing the CPE and calling for negotiations -- but commentators said he would be keeping careful watch on the scale of the protests.