Chirac appeals for dialogue over jobs plan

15th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 15, 2006 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac appealed for dialogue Wednesday over a contested youth jobs programme which has sparked a growing movement of opposition against the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

PARIS, March 15, 2006 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac appealed for dialogue Wednesday over a contested youth jobs programme which has sparked a growing movement of opposition against the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

A day ahead of more planned street protests, Chirac said he understood that "questions and concerns were being expressed" over the First Employment Contract (CPE) -- a new youth jobs contract condemned by opponents as offering labour on the cheap.

"Mister prime minister, you have proposed strengthening still further the guarantees attached to the CPE. You were right to suggest opening and expanding dialogue with the social partners," Chirac told the weekly cabinet meeting in remarks conveyed by a spokesman.

"I hope this dialogue will open, and I trust that the social partners will engage in it in a spirit of constructive responsibility, dialogue and respect," he said.

The remarks appeared more nuanced than Chirac's clear expression of support Tuesday for the embattled prime minister, when he told journalists on a trip to Berlin that he backed "totally and without reserve" Villepin's course of action.

An open-ended contract for under 26-year-olds that can be terminated without justification in the first two years, the CPE is meant to encourage employers to take on young staff and bring down the country's chronically high rate of youth unemployment.

On Sunday Villepin promised to add supplementary "guarantees" on training and severance pay in order to reassure opponents of the contract, but students groups, trade unions and left-wing political parties continue to demand its complete withdrawal.

Street demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands eight days ago were followed by strikes and sit-ins at half the country's 85 universities, and more protests were planned for Thursday and Saturday.

On Wednesday morning some 250 students massed outside the historic Sorbonne in Paris -- centre of the May 1968 student uprising -- to demand that it re-open following Saturday's evacuation of the campus by riot-police.

"It is forbidden to forbid students from studying," read one banner in a reference to the famous 1968 slogan "It is forbidden to forbid."

"There is no other way out other than the withdrawal of the CPE. It'll take as long as it takes, but we'll get there," said Bernard Thibault of the CGT trade union.

Rene Silvestre, who runs a leading newspaper and advice bureau for students, said the scale of the opposition movement to the CPE reflected a broader malaise among French youth.

"Young people of today have two overriding feelings. One is that things are going to be worse tomorrow than they are today, so they have little faith in the future - especially economically. And second, they have lost faith in their diplomas which they can see are no longer a passport to employment," he said.

France has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe, with the figure topping 50 percent in some of the high-immigration city suburbs that were hit by rioting last November.

Villepin's centre-right government has portrayed the CPE as a measure aimed primarily at the least-advantaged in society, earning accusations from the left that it is trying to divide the poor suburban youth from the largely middle-class student body.

The Socialist Party (PS) on Tuesday referred the CPE to the country's Constitutional Council -- the body that rules whether new laws adhere to the 1958 constitution. The council could issue its decision next week at the earliest.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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