Motionless trains. Planes in hangars. Cars mired in traffic jams. Post offices and private companies hobbled by strikes. Two thirds of the countrys universities and about a thousand schools engulfed in protest. In a broad day of action, Frances unions joined with young opponents of the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to underscore efforts to repeal new labor laws aimed at first-time entrants to the job market.
Dubbed Black Tuesday by the leftist daily Libération, the day of demonstrations drew more than 3 million protestors nation-wide, easily beating the crowds at other recent demonstrations -- including the 700,000 French who gathered on March 7 and the more than 1 million opponents who voiced their displeasure at the Contrat Premiere Embauche (CPE), or "first employment contract," last Sunday.
Security forces in Paris alone were boosted by more than 4,000 to prevent further violent clashes like those that erupted last week when rioting youth gangs torched cars, looted stores and attacked, beat and robbed demonstrators.
Nevertheless, despite the massive presence of riot police and undercover officers at Metro stations, train stations and along protest routes, masked hooligans tried to storm a supermarket near the meeting point at Place dItalie. Plate-glass windows were smashed. Cell phones and purses were snatched from demonstrators. In the evening, Paris police reported more than 220 arrests in the capital city alone. Nation-wide, more than 380 people were taken into custody.
Police expect new riots
Protests were held in other French cities as well. The Rennes train station in western France was cleared after being occupied by protesters; youths then marched into the city center, tossing rocks and bottles at riot police. Police in Grenoble used rubber bullets and tear gas. In Caen, on the Normandy coast, more than a thousand young protestors blocked the offices of the regional government of Calvados with barricades, pallets and trash cans for several hours. They were repelled by police with tear gas.
Despite the ugliness of the violent uprisings, this Tuesday is likely to be pivotal for Villepin. After nearly 200 demonstrations decrying the CPE, the prime ministers pet project hardly looks salvageable. Protestors despise the law for allowing workers under 26 to be fired without cause during a two-year probationary period. However, Villepin has defended it, saying the law will make it more attractive for companies to create jobs for young employees.
But the strikes and demonstrations have become more than just a dialogue on the erosion of labor rights for workers under 26 -- the conflict has become a showdown between the unions, student organizations and opposition parties on one side and Prime Minister Villepin, who is following an all-or-nothing credo, on the other.
Despite his repeated calls for talks, initial discussions last week and a renewed offer for negotiations with unions, Villepin has only showed a willingness to compromise on one point -- the length of the probationary period. The prime minister refuses to budge on the termination-without-cause clause, claiming it would water down his attempts at reform.
Governing from the Hotel Matignon, Villepin is playing the statesman unwilling to be swayed by the street. But behind his supposed principles he is making a crude play for the top political seat in the Fifth Republic. Villepin is hoping to open a gap between himself and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in the internal race to become the presidential candidate for the UMP party in next springs elections. Sarkozy, who is also chief of the governing UMP, is known as a bitter rival to the prime minister.
Villepin increasingly isolated
The immovable stance of the impulsive politician is increasingly isolating Villepin from the press and his own right-wing camp. Some 63 percent of the French reject his blocking tactics and even Laurence Parisot, president of the influential Medef employers union, cautiously distanced herself from the head of the government by pointing out clumsiness on both sides.
UMP head Sarkozy used a long-planned appearance to chastise his cabinet colleague Villepin and give a keynote address on a more just France that left him looking like the rights presidential candidate.
"One can be unwavering without being rigid, listen without giving up ones convictions, conciliatory without being weak, Sarkozy pronounced during his appearance in Douai, a city in the desolate rust belt of northern France. And it sounded almost derisive when he advised his rival to reconsider his unmoving stance in light of the willingness of everyone to compromise in the name of a more just society. This must be the guide of good governmental action.
A public scolding by his arch-rival may be tough, but the attitude of UMP parliamentarians has a bigger impact. On Tuesday, they withdrew their support for the prime minister. Along with Sarkozy, the politicians are demanding that changes be made to the CPE with the help of social partners before it becomes law.
Standing solid, but for how long?
Whether a publicly disavowed Villepin will now cave remains to be seen. Until now, he chose to stand solid in the face of the crisis.
Should the prime minister cling unwaveringly to his project, President Jacques Chirac could start to wonder whether his unpopular government leader can be saved. Chirac, who refuses to leave Paris during the protests (which forced him to cancel a Thursday appearance at the opening of a container terminal in Le Havre), is growing tired of the prime ministers crisis management.
Perhaps a decision will emerge from the regular cabinet meeting on Wednesday. During last weeks conference, Chirac threatened his obstinate pupil with termination during the traditional preliminary meeting between the president and the prime minister.
Villepins only face-saving escape hatch is the constitutional council -- at the urging of the opposition, the ten-member panel is expected to rule Thursday on the constitutionality of the CPE. Should the wise men determine that the law, which was forced through using exceptions, goes against the tenets of the French constitution, the political crisis will end.
The prime minister would then be damaged, but saved.