PARIS, France Mar 19 (AP): Police loosed water cannons and tear gas on rioting students and activists rampaged through a McDonald's and attacked store fronts in the capital Saturday as demonstrations against a plan to relax job protections spread in a widening arc across France.
The protests, which drew some 500,000 people in cities across the country, were the biggest show yet of escalating anger that is testing the strength of the conservative government before elections next year.
In Paris, seven officers and 17 protesters were injured during two melees at the close of the march, at the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris and the Sorbonne University. Police said they arrested 156 people in the French capital.
Four cars were set afire, police said, and a McDonald's restaurant was attacked along with store fronts at the close of the march.
Tensions escalated later Saturday 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 cannons on the protesters at the Sorbonne and were seen throwing youths to the ground, hitting them and dragging them into vans.
"Liberate the Sorbonne!" some protesters shouted. "Police everywhere, justice nowhere."
In an apparent effort to set fire to a police van serving as a blockade, protesters instead torched the entrance of a nearby Gap store, apparently by accident, engulfing the small porch in flames.
With commerce snarled in some cities, people asked whether Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin would stand firm on implementing the change that he says is needed to encourage hiring. The usually outspoken leader was silent Saturday.
Protest organizers urged President Jacques Chirac on Saturday to prevent the law from taking effect as expected in April.
In Marseille, extreme leftist youths climbed the facade of City Hall, replacing a French flag with a banner reading "Anticapitalism." Police used tear gas to disperse them and made several arrests.
Widespread discontent with the government has crystalized around a new type of job contract that Villepin says will alleviate France's sky-high youth unemployment by getting companies to risk hiring young workers.