France fears new violence in suburbs amid CPE protests

22nd March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 22, 2006 (AFP) - Tensions were at fever-pitch in France Wednesday ahead of a new day of protests against Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's contested youth labour law, amid growing fears that violence could reignite in the city suburbs hit by last November's riots.

PARIS, March 22, 2006 (AFP) - Tensions were at fever-pitch in France Wednesday ahead of a new day of protests against Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's contested youth labour law, amid growing fears that violence could reignite in the city suburbs hit by last November's riots.

With hundreds of thousands of high-school pupils expected to join university students in strikes and demonstrations Thursday, officials warned that a climate of lawlessness could easily tip over into more vandalism, car-burnings and clashes with police.

"There is a danger that the turmoil in the lycees and universities could reawaken the agitation in the suburbs where things are still extremely tense," France's interior minister and ruling party chief Nicolas Sarkozy said.

"No-one believes that in just three months the situation there has been properly resolved," Sarkozy said in an interview with Paris-Match magazine.

Two weeks of protests against the government's First Employment Contract (CPE) have already led to serious disturbances on the fringes of protest marches, and in Paris a trade union member remains in a coma after being caught in a police charge on Saturday.

On Tuesday and Wednesday there were the first hints of new instability in the high-immigration suburbs of Paris where last year's rioting started, with reports of gangs of teenagers roaming the streets, smashing property and stoning schools.

"It is the first rumblings since the November riots," an official from the CRS riot police in the Seine-Saint-Denis district of northern Paris told Le Figaro newspaper.

Left-wing politicians and union leaders accused Villepin of high-handed obstinacy after he again refused to give ground on the CPE, which is an open-ended contract for under 26 year-olds that can be terminated without motivation during a two-year trial period.

Meeting deputies from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) Tuesday, Villepin ruled out three options: withdrawing the contract, suspending it, or changing its essence.

He repeated past assurances that the contract was open to "adjustments" -- for example by bringing down the trial period to one year -- but said this would have to be negotiated by employers and unions in different industries.

"The role of a government is not to fan the crisis, it's to calm it down," said the Socialist Party's Laurent Fabius, while his colleague Henri Emmanuelli said that "Villepin is more interested in the cult of his own personality than in the government of France."

There were the first signs of cracks in the ruling party consensus, with Sarkozy -- who like Villepin has ambitions to take over from President Jacques Chirac next year -- implicitly criticising the prime minister for failing to bring the country behind him.

Sarkozy told Paris-Match that he supported a six-month test period for the CPE after which it could be evaluated and scrapped if it proved ineffective.

"If the CPE creates jobs, why fear it, why reject it? Let's experiment. Let's evaluate it in good faith with the unions and student organisations," Sarkozy said.

"If there is incomprehension, it must be because we haven't had enough dialogue. We need to make up lost time. We mustn't get in a state. France is a country that accepts change, but the change has to be seen as fair," he said.

Polls show that some two-thirds of the population want the CPE either modified or dropped altogether.

A personal initiative of the prime minister, the CPE is meant to bring down youth unemployment -- which hits more than 50 percent in the high-immigration city suburbs -- by giving employers extra flexibility.

But opponents say it is a breach of hard-won labour rights, and will make it harder than ever for young people to get permanent employment.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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