PARIS – France's biggest trade unions set a 10-day deadline Wednesday for the government to revoke a divisive jobs law, threatening more protests and strikes that have spiraled into a national crisis.
Union leaders began three days of talks with top lawmakers from President Jacques Chirac's ruling party in hopes of ending a standoff that has thrown the country into turmoil and damaged his prime minister and protege, Dominique de Villepin.
Massive marches Tuesday drew more than 1 million protesters for the second time in a week, and brought renewed violence — putting unions in a position of strength as they headed into the discussions.
Pockets of protest continued Wednesday as demonstrators blocked roads, rail lines and mail delivery trucks around the country. Dozens of universities have been closed by protesters and many high schools have had classes disrupted.
At a Cabinet meeting, Chirac said he hoped the talks with unions would be constructive, according to a government spokesman.
"Students must be able to prepare for exams, and high schoolers must go back to school," he added.
Unless the conservative government revokes the law by April 15, unions will organize "a new, strong period of mobilization, not ruling out any means of action," they said in a joint statement.
Francois Chereque, head of the moderate CFDT union, emerged from meetings with parliamentary leaders praising them for "listening" to his complaints.
The leader of the Communist-backed CGT union, Bernard Thibault, left his meeting saying he was "more confident than ever about the exit to this battle," adding: "It is very clear that nothing will be able to happen without a change in the government's position."
The law is designed to jolt France's rigid labor market and reduce high youth unemployment by making it easier for companies to hire — and fire — young workers. Opponents fear it will damage job security.
Unions decided to wait until Monday to set a date for another major, nationwide day of protests and urged demonstrations on the local level for Saturday.
The opposition Socialist Party submitted a bill to parliament Wednesday to repeal the law and urged that it be debated before lawmakers break for vacation on April 15.
"We want to offer the country a way out of the crisis," Socialist leader Francois Hollande said.
Tuesday's marches were mostly peaceful, although hooligan violence marred the end of the largest protest, in Paris. Several hundred youths ripped up street signs and park benches and hurled stones and chunks of paving at police. The police responded with tear gas and rubber pellets and made repeated charges, carrying away those they arrested.
Police said 626 people were taken into custody nationwide, more than half in Paris. Thirty people and four police officers were also slightly injured. Officials said the unrest involved some youths from Paris' tougher suburbs.
Villepin championed the law to stem youth unemployment rates of 22 percent, and as high as 50 percent in some depressed, heavily immigrant suburbs hit by weeks of riots last year.