PARIS – Police sprayed tear gas at demonstrators who threw rocks and skirmished with riot officers on the edges of a mostly peaceful Paris protest Thursday by high school students worried about teacher job cuts.
Police said about 19,000 students marched from Luxembourg Gardens down the Boulevard de Montparnasse on the Left Bank, while organizers put the figure at 30,000. It was the fifth such protest in two weeks, and the largest by far. Smaller demonstrations were organized in other cities and in the provinces.
Strapped for cash and seeking ways to trim the budget, the conservative government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to cut 11,200 jobs in the national education system in the next school year, with 8,800 of them in junior high schools and high schools.
Scores of high schools around the country were blocked or disrupted Thursday by protests.
The students are marching in solidarity with their teachers, amid fears the cuts will lead to overcrowded classes and limit the number of subjects taught. The students also are expressing anger at Sarkozy's overall reforms, which they fear will erode the social and labor protections that underpin French society.
The vast majority of students were calm, dancing to pop music that blasted from trucks, but a few hundred at the front of the march charged at police, waved batons, threw rocks or set off firecrackers.
Plainclothes officers with clubs grabbed a rock-throwing student and tackling him to the ground. On several occasions, police used spray cans of tear gas. Fourteen people were arrested by early evening, the Paris police headquarters said.
Officers in riot gear faced off with a few students armed with metal or wooden bars who charged as the procession moved past the historic cafes of the Montparnasse district, including La Coupole. Many businesses on the street were shuttered for the march.
Some marchers were dismayed to see the skirmishes with police. With rows of riot police blocking off the road, the march started breaking up well before reaching the planned destination, the Education Ministry.
"Everybody is dispersing because of these guys who just want to beat up police officers," said Marie Lesur, a 19-year-old student at a high school in Villeneuve le Roi outside Paris.
Many students linked hands as they walked to prevent the unruly protesters from penetrating the main group. Some teachers marched along with their students, who waved signs reading, "RIP to the National Education System" and "Fewer teachers, more students fail."
Students shouted slogans singling out Education Minister Xavier Darcos, but Sarkozy was also a target, with students chanting, "Sarko, Sarko, resign."
Darcos has vowed to stick to the planned cuts despite the protests. In an interview published Thursday, he said it was "natural, even inevitable" that the students are worried about their future. "We were all 16 to 20 years old once," he told Le Parisien.
Two more demonstrations are planned next Tuesday and Thursday, ahead of spring school vacations starting the following week.