Emboldened by Tuesday's massive demonstrations, French unions are to meet with leaders from President Jacques Chirac's ruling right party for talks on Wednesday on the contested youth jobs law.
The street was on fire in Rennes
Conservative parliamentarians, who were brought in after Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin failed to rush the reform past stiff public opposition, have offered the discussions on the First Job Contract (CPE), but are not prepared to scrap it.
Yet the French political scene has remained tense after groups of young people hurled stones and bottles at riot police, who responded with teargas, at the end of mass demonstrations in several French cities against the contested youth jobs plan.
Police said they had arrested 312 people across the country after a series of skirmishes as Tuesday's marches -- which had been peaceful -- wrapped up, with unions claiming up to three million on the streets.
Teargas to quell revolt
Riot police officers chase protesters after a demonstration
In the south of the capital, dozens of trouble-makers hurled paving stones and bottles at riot police, who fired teargas. At least nine police officers were slightly injured.
More serious incidents broke out in Lille, in the north, where hundreds of young people hurled missiles at the riot police, smashed shop windows and vandalized cars, although the situation calmed down in the evening. A television reporter was assaulted while filming the violence and a young man suffered burn injuries from the shell of a tear gas grenade.
Police in Rennes, in the northwest, also fired teargas at protestors after they were targeted with bottles and stones as people set garbage cans on fire and smashed bus shelters and windows. Firefighters said they had evacuated at least three people, including one hit with a rubber bullet.
Tuesday's marches, accompanied by strikes, came despite concessions wrung from President Jacques Chirac as well as the prospect of imminent talks to end the two-month crisis over the First Employment Contract (CPE).
French unions estimate three million protest participants
The CGT union said three million people took part in nearly 200 rallies -- roughly the same number it claimed had turned out on the last day of action a week ago. The government figure was just over one million.
A student banner: "We are not rioters, being jobless is our future"
Tens of thousands of students and workers marched to the Place de l'Italie in the south of Paris. "We have to keep up the fight. My parents did May 1968, so they're hardly going to stop me!" said 19-year-old student Elodie Desrues, referring to the landmark student revolts.
"It is obvious the government is on the retreat so we have to keep pushing to the end," said Francois Chereque of the CFDT union.
Union leaders vowed they would attend talks Wednesday with ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), but only to push for the CPE's complete abrogation.
"If there is a chance to convince UMP deputies that they are at a dead end, we shall go and once again ask for the withdrawal of the CPE. But we refuse to negotiate mere adjustments," the CGT's Bernard Thibault said.
The French must search deeper for major change
In addition to the escalating protests, Prime Minister Villepin's botched attempt to reform labor laws has also caused anguished soul-searching about the survival of France's social model against globalization.
Conceived 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.
Opponents accuse the premier of trampling on hard-won labor rights and of railroading it through parliament without proper consultation with unions and employers.
Chirac offered an elaborate compromise last Friday -- ratifying the CPE -- but immediately suspending it pending a new law to amend its most hotly contested provisions.
But leaders of the student-union alliance were confident that more can be won, and want all trace of the hated contract written out of the new law.
Many believe Villepin should resign
In a sign of a 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.
An opinion poll to be published this week in L'Express magazine shows that 45 percent of the public think Villepin should resign.
Tuesday's protests were accompanied by strikes in the transport sector, but disruption was limited, with all Paris metro trains running and 70 percent of TGV fast trains. Scores of domestic and European flights were cancelled because of action by air-traffic controllers.