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Tens of Thousands in France Protest Pay Cuts for the Young


PARIS — Amid a growing wave of spring social unrest, tens of thousands of French students, teachers and parents took to the streets of the capital and several provincial cities Friday in an intense new protest over government-decreed wage cuts for youth.

The student demonstrations, which began almost three weeks ago, have mushroomed into a major crisis for the year-old government of conservative Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, who is battling to bring the country's 12.2% unemployment rate under control with a variety of controversial medicines.

An estimated 30,000 protesters joined the Paris march Friday, walking from the Left Bank across the Seine under the gaze of about 3,000 heavily armed riot police.

Police said they arrested 42 people after clashes between officers and some departing protesters at the end of the march; 48 officers were injured.

Although most of the previous protests have been peaceful, tension has been growing.

Early Friday, a clash between police and demonstrators hurling gasoline bombs, stones and bottles resulted in 30 injuries in the college towns of Nantes and Rennes in Brittany. And sporadic violence occurred during protests a day earlier as well, with 73 police and 90 demonstrators injured during a march in Lyons.

In Paris, protesters carried signs reading, "Slaves of the Year 2000--No, Thank You" and "Dad, I've Found a Job--Yours." Several people broke from the crowd at one point, using stones to break windows of stores, which had been closed along the protest route.

"We're showing that we're not ready to accept just anything from the government," said Pierre Francois, 21, a university student who joined the march. "We're ready to fight."

The protests stem from a government decision to let employers cut the legal minimum wage by between 25% and 70% for unskilled workers under age 25 in return for on-the-job training. The idea is to encourage businesses to hire more workers, especially younger ones, about one in four of whom are unemployed.

But Balladur did not count on the strong reaction of the youth, and older French people as well, to cutting the minimum wage, now about $1,000 a month for a 39-hour week.

To many French, Balladur's move set a dangerous precedent. And some students see it as a blunt warning that they will not be able to enjoy the same standard of living as their parents.

"For me, this is a choice between being able to live a normal life and not having to live in my parents' house," said Magalie Castillio, 19, who joined the march Friday. "If you earn this kind of wage, you can pay rent or food, but you can't pay both."

The government already has twice amended its minimum-wage plan, first by excluding youth with more than two years of higher education from the lower wage, then by adding a requirement that employers provide job training during working hours for lower-paid workers. The final version of the decree went into law this week.

But the changes have not weakened the resolve of the students, who are supported in their efforts by many French labor unions.

Much of that resistance has surfaced in the provinces, where 230,000 people took to the streets a week ago. And a recent public opinion poll, conducted by the Paris daily InfoMatin, found that 55% of those surveyed opposed the lower minimum wage.

Balladur's government, which has backed down in the face of protests by Air France workers, fishermen and others in recent months, has vowed to hold the line on its minimum-wage proposal.

Balladur has suggested, though, that the government might remove the lower minimum wage in the fall, if it does not help stimulate the economy.

But many in France, such as Claude Baudeau, 56, who joined the students in Paris on Friday, say the new decree will eventually result in lower salaries for all.

"You can't live off the minimum wage, let alone live off less than the minimum wage," she said. "When I was young, I fought for this minimum wage, and now I'm fighting again for the right to a decent salary for our children."

For months now, the government and political analysts have been warning of a social explosion, resulting from growing tension in a country with a record 3.3 million unemployed people and the highest rate in Western Europe. And they speak darkly of a repeat of the social upheaval after the May, 1968, student protests, which turned violent and eventually led to the retirement of Charles de Gaulle.

Last Sunday, the French gave Balladur's government a vote of confidence in an initial round of local elections, with his center-right coalition winning 44.7% of the vote. But Socialists gained some support, mostly from the ecological movement. A runoff is set for this Sunday.

Sarah White of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.

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