Monday, April 10, 2006

La rue régit la France*
Bowing to Pressure, Chirac Replaces Law

PARIS - President Jacques Chirac on Monday scrapped a controversial part of a youth labor law that triggered massive protests and strikes, bowing to intense pressure from students and unions and dealing a blow to his loyal premier in a bid to end the crisis.

Unions celebrated what they called "a great victory," and also were deciding whether to keep up the protests. The top two student union UNEF and FIDL said they would press on with demonstrations Tuesday across France.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who devised the law, had faced down protesters for weeks, insisting that its most divisive provision — a so-called "first job contract" — was necessary to reduce high unemployment rates among French youths by making it easier for companies to hire and fire young workers…

A somber Villepin, in a TV appearance, said his original legislation was designed to curb "despair of many youths" and strike a "better balance ... between more flexibility for the employer and more security for workers."

"This was not understood by everyone, I'm sorry to say," Villepin said.

The crisis has discredited Chirac and devastated Villepin and his presidential ambitions — and thrown into question the government's ability to push through painful reforms to help France compete in the global economy. The new measures increase the government's role in the workplace instead of decreasing them, as Villepin had sought.

Students and other opponents had feared the previous measure would erode coveted job security — and some unions trumpeted the retreat by Chirac and his prime minister.

The labor law "is dead and buried," said Jean-Claude Mailly of the Workers Force union. "The goal has been achieved."

Alain Olive, secretary-general of the UNSA union, said, "After more than two weeks of intense mobilization, the 12 syndicated groups of workers, university and high school students have won a great victory."

UNEF leader Bruno Julliard told AP Television News that the students "want to see how we can take advantage of this power struggle that is now in our favor to garner new victories."

The new four-point plan sent to parliament would bolster existing job contracts, rather than enact new ones. The government would offer more state support for companies that hire young workers.

Villepin drew up the labor legislation as part of his response to last fall's rioting in France's impoverished suburbs, where many immigrants and their French-born children live. The unemployment rate for youths under 26 is a staggering 22 percent nationwide, but soars to nearly 50 percent in some of those troubled areas…

* - The street governs France

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