France seeks exit strategy as youth job law talks wind up

7th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 7, 2006 (AFP) - France's ruling party held a final day of talks with unions on Friday over a divisive youth jobs reform, as business leaders called for a rapid end to the crisis to avoid harming the French economy.

PARIS, April 7, 2006 (AFP) - France's ruling party held a final day of talks with unions on Friday over a divisive youth jobs reform, as business leaders called for a rapid end to the crisis to avoid harming the French economy.

Unions and student groups — in a position of strength after two months of demonstrations that have drawn millions into the street — have threatened more mass protests unless the measure is abrogated by the end of next week.

President Jacques Chirac has already effectively suspended the contested First Employment Contract (CPE), asking the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) to draw up a new law after consulting leaders of the protest movement.

Several commentators said Chirac's government appeared to have all but given up on the youth contract, which makes it easier to fire under-26 year-olds, but was looking for a way to repeal it without losing face.

"How to come up with a measure that looks, tastes and acts like an abrogation, but is not called an abrogation?" summed up an editorial in the left-wing Liberation newspaper.

UMP lawmakers were Friday wrapping up three days of meetings with unions and student groups, as well as the MEDEF employers' association and the CGPME small business federation, before deciding on the contents of the new law.

One union, Solidaires, said after meeting the UMP that the party "understood the urgency" of the situation, but that no announcement would be made before Monday.

MEDEF head Laurence Parisot warned Friday that the protest movement — in which students have targeted transport and industry — risked harming the French economy.

"We must do everything to quickly end this crisis, which is costing our country dearly," Parisot told France 2 television. "It is time to end this colossal disruption, which harms not only our image but our very social fabric."

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's authority has been badly undermined by the labour conflict, and his chances as a presidential candidate all but destroyed, although on Thursday he ruled out resigning over the crisis.

Humiliatingly for Villepin, responsibility for negotiating a way out of the crisis has been handed to his powerful rival, UMP chief and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Commentators say that many supporters of Sarkozy in the UMP are angry at Villepin's handling of the reform and feel little attachment to the CPE.

On Friday, former minister Roselyne Bachelot — a Sarkozy ally and senior UMP official — became the latest party figure to call openly for the CPE to be scrapped.

"Speaking in my own name, I want an abrogation, so that we can put this behind us," she said on Canal Plus television.

Conceived as a tool against youth unemployment, which runs at 22 percent in France, the CPE is a contract for under 26-year-olds that can be terminated by the employer without explanation during a two-year trial period.

It provoked a massive backlash, with Villepin accused of trampling on hard-won labour rights, and a sometimes violent protest movement in which more than 3,500 people have been arrested.

Students have been staging wildcat protests to keep up the pressure on the government — blocking two factories belonging to the aircraft manufacturer Airbus on Thursday — but there were signs of the movement fizzling out.

Friday marks the start of the academic holidays in around a third of the country, with other regions to follow, and there are mounting calls for work to resume at disrupted schools and universities in time for end-of-year exams.

Wildcat protests continued in some areas, however, such as in Nantes in the west, students blocked bus and tramway depots for several hours.

In Le Havre in the north, around 400 students occupied the offices of a UMP deputy before heading to the courtroom and city hall to press their demands.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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