PARIS (AP) — At least 1 million of protesters poured onto France’s streets and absent workers hobbled transport services March 28 in the first nationwide strike against a new labor law for youths, increasing pressure on the embattled prime minister to withdraw the contested measure.

Marches took place in scores of cities and towns.

“We have to defend the rights that were won by our ancestors and which the current government is trying to take away,” said Maxime Ourly, a literature student who joined thousands protesting on Paris’ Left Bank.

The new jobs law would let companies dismiss workers under 26 without cause during their first two years on the job — a provision students and labor unions say will erode France’s workplace protections and leave youths even more vulnerable.

But conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin says the greater flexibility will encourage companies to hire young workers, who face a 22-percent unemployment rate, the highest in Western Europe.

As the strike unfolded, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy called for a suspension of the new contract, in a clear break with Villepin.

“The contract must not be applied during the talks,” Sarkozy told members of the ruling UMP party, which he heads.

Protesters in Paris said they want to defend the status quo.

“We are here for our children. We are very worried about what will happen to them,” said Philippe Decrulle, an Air France flight attendant. “My son is 23, and he has no job. That is normal in France.”

Light rain did not dampen the festive atmosphere, with red union flags and balloons floating over the marchers and stands selling them sausages.

Newsstands also were empty of national dailies because of the strike. State-run radio France-Info, a top source of daily news for the French, aired only music. France-2 television broadcast its morning show in a smaller-than-usual studio, with some technicians on strike.

The strike slowed train, plane, subway and bus services across the country to a fraction of normal levels. It was the first time that unions had ordered walkouts in solidarity with students spearheading protests against the job contract.

France’s top five labor union federations also refused Villepin’s invitation to meet for talks, insisting that he shelve the contract first.