LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News Correspondent: Hundreds of thousands on streets of Paris. Mass marches across France. Unions and students trying to force the French government to back down on its latest plan to liberalize the labor market.
This is more than a protest; it's a battle of wills. The government says it's determined not to give in to pressure from the street. Undercover policemen were easy to spot; they helped riot police move in to contain early scuffles. Last week, one man was seriously injured and several were arrested in smaller demonstrations.
The protesters are resisting a new law which allows companies to sack young workers without explanation for up to two years. The idea is that, if employers can fire more easily, they'll hire more willingly, alleviating France's 23 percent youth unemployment, but the students leading the protest say, "Non."
FRENCH PROTESTOR: It's not going to do anything but make the jobs of young people more difficult.
FRENCH PROTESTOR: The first thing that we ask is that they cancel this decision and, really, the problem is here that the government has not shown respect for the population and has tried to force us to accept this decision, and that's probably why you see so many people in the streets today.
LINDSEY HILSUM: The rain doesn't seem to have deterred the demonstrations, neither the union members nor the students. And there are a vast number of young people here.
Their catch phrase: Non a` la pre'carite', "no to insecurity." They're not calling for revolution or change, but for the French social system to stay the same.
Montmartre, the traditional nostalgic vision of Paris sold to tourists. The idea of a secure, unchanging system of state benefits is seen as essentially French, too, and many French people are also nostalgic for protests past, for 1968, when young people fought for freedom, not security.
FRENCH CITIZEN: (through translator): In 1968, there was hope, but I don't think young people today have hope. It's totally different. Now you struggle for two years to find work. And when you finally do, you'll bust a gut to keep it. It's a totally different world.
LINDSEY HILSUM: France is, of course, very much part of the modern world. This small company providing state-of-the-art operating systems to corporate clients. Alexandre Zapolsky set it up when he was just 22. He likes risk, he says, and just doesn't understand his contemporaries.
ALEXANDRE ZAPOLSKY, Director, Linagora: People who are 20 years old in France just speak about insecurity. This is completely crazy; we have to change this mentality. We did not our revolution of our social model. You did it with Margaret Thatcher in the '70s and the earlier '80s. America did it, maybe, in the '60s; we have to change our social model.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Today, the prime minister addressed parliament. He now wants compromise with the unions and the students, maybe reducing the two-year limits to one, but they're refusing to talk. His supporters see implementing some form of this new measure as a matter of principle.
RENAUD DUTREIL, French Minister of Businesses: We have always seen French governments retreating before the streets. And my generation doesn't want to see that, because it's not democracy. Democracy is discussing with partners, of course, but respecting the law. So we hope that this time we will win this kind of new battle.
LINDSEY HILSUM: On the streets today, equal determination and no resolution to the immediate dilemma for the government, nor the long-term economic problems that France now faces.