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Thousands across France protest youth job changes

PARIS -- A day of rioting and widespread protests against a government plan to relax job protections ended with clouds of tear gas, continued paralysis at 16 universities, and an ultimatum to President Jacques Chirac: Keep the law from going into effect or face the consequences.

The protests drew 500,000 people in a number of cities across the country.

The rallies were the biggest show yet of escalating anger, testing the strength of the conservative government before elections next year.

Protest organizers urged President Jacques Chirac yesterday to prevent the law from taking effect as expected in April.

The group said it expects an answer by tomorrow, when leaders will decide whether to continue protests that have paralyzed at least 16 universities.

''We give them two days to see if they understand the message we've sent," said René Jouan of the CFDT union.

At the protest yesterday in Paris, seven officers and 17 protesters were injured during two melées at the close of the march, at the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris and the Sorbonne University. Police said they had arrested 156 people in the French capital.

As the march ended, four cars were set afire, police said.

Tensions escalated later yesterday as about 500 youths moved on to the Sorbonne, trying to break through tall metal blockades erected after police stormed the Paris landmark a week ago to dislodge occupying students. The university has become a symbol of the protest.

Police turned water cannon on the protesters at the Sorbonne and were seen throwing youths to the ground, hitting them and dragging them into vans.

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