More than 1 million demonstrators poured onto France's streets, and strikers shut down the Eiffel Tower and disrupted plane, train and bus services Tuesday in the largest nationwide protests so far against a new law that will make it easier to fire young people.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin held firm, but cracks opened in his conservative government as pressure for him to withdraw the contested measure reached unprecedented heights, with unions, students and the leftist opposition joined in solidarity, and more violence erupting on the streets of Paris.
Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, in a clear break with Villepin, suggested suspending the new type of job contract for youths to allow for negotiations. With the government in crisis, President Jacques Chirac canceled a trip planned for later in the week to stay in Paris.
Police and organizers' estimates for the number of marchers varied greatly, but both showed the protest movement growing in strength.
Police estimated 1,055,000 people took part in more than 250 protests nationwide, including 92,000 in Paris. The organizers' total was closer to 3 million, with 700,000 at the march from the Left Bank to the heavily policed Place de Republique.
Riot officers, under orders to arrest as many troublemakers as possible, moved aggressively against youths who pelted them with stones, bottles and other projectiles. Police took more than 240 people into custody and used water cannons and tear gas to try to disperse several thousand youths who gathered after the otherwise peaceful, festive march finished.
Marchers ranged across age groups, from students with "Non" painted on their faces to older union militants. Many said they wanted to defend the status quo.
"Young people are sacrificed in the name of the economy, and we are here to fight against it," said Maxime Ourly, 18, a literature student at the Paris march. "We don't know what will happen in the future, and we want to control our futures."
Students and labor unions say the contract will erode France's cherished workplace protections. Set to take effect next month, it would let companies fire employees aged under 26 without reason in the first two years on the job.
Despite the huge marches, Villepin held firm. He told parliament that he was open to talks on employment and possible changes to the contract but did not say that he would withdraw it.
"Only in action will we convince all of the French that tomorrow can be better than today," he said, loudly heckled by opposition politicians.
Villepin says the greater flexibility will encourage companies to hire young workers, who face a 22-percent unemployment rate - the highest in Western Europe. But as protests have grown, his government - and chances of running for the presidency next year - have appeared increasingly fragile.
Sarkozy, the interior minister also gunning to be the conservative camp's presidential candidate, told a meeting of lawmakers from the governing UMP party that the contract should not go into force to allow for talks to resolve the crisis, his aides said.
Villepin's sputtering effort at reform underscores the dilemma facing many countries in Europe that have expensive job protections and social safety nets under threat by competition from fast-rising Asian economies with cheaper, less protected workers.
Protests stretched across France: 31,000 marched in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, 28,000 in the southern port city of Marseille, 26,000 in the Alpine city of Grenoble, 17,000 in Lyon, 28,000 in the western city of Rennes - where students blocked train tracks for two hours - and hundreds of thousands in dozens of other cities and towns, according to police estimates.
Violence was not confined to Paris.
In Rennes, capital of Brittany, troublemakers threw bottles and stones at police and attacked cars and street signs. Across the country in Grenoble, police used tear gas and rubber pellets in their face-off with violent youths.
"We are here for our children. We are very worried about what will happen to them," said Philippe Decrulle, an Air France flight attendant at the Paris march. "My son is 23, and he has no job. That is normal in France."
The nationwide strike - the first time that unions had ordered walkouts in solidarity with students spearheading the protests - slowed train, plane, subway and bus services to a fraction of their normal levels.
The Eiffel Tower was closed, employees at the Paris landmark said. Some elementary and high schools closed as teachers walked off the job.
Associated Press Writers Angela Doland, Jean-Marie Godard and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.
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