French students keep up the pressure with more protests

11th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 11, 2006 (AFP) - French students staged a fresh day of wildcat protests Tuesday, vowing to keep up the pressure on the government and calling for further concessions despite the scrapping of a contested jobs contract.

PARIS, April 11, 2006 (AFP) - French students staged a fresh day of wildcat protests Tuesday, vowing to keep up the pressure on the government and calling for further concessions despite the scrapping of a contested jobs contract.

Unions and student groups were celebrating victory after President Jacques Chirac bowed to two months of strikes and street protests by dropping the plan, but said they would remain "vigilant" until a substitute law is voted in.

Dozens of students blocked bus depots in south-western Toulouse, briefly invaded the runways at Nantes airport in the west, and blocked roads in north-western Rouen, while 600 people marched in the southern city of Marseille.

Universities in all four cities remain on strike, despite a call by a national student leader, Julie Coudry, for classes to resume at disrupted faculties in time for students to prepare for their examinations.

Debate on the two legal articles replacing the First Employment Contract (CPE), which was part of a broader law on equal opportunities, is to start late Tuesday in the National Assembly, with a vote expected Wednesday or Thursday.

The CPE, a contract for under-26s that could be broken off without reason during a two-year trial period, is now to be replaced by new state subsidies to incite companies to take on unqualified young staff.

Emboldened by their success, some students have set their sights on a repeal of the entire law on equal opportunities, as well as a similar New Employment Contract (CNE) introduced last year for employees of small companies.

The equal opportunities law, drawn up following riots in French suburbs last November, includes a controversial provision lowering the minimum age for apprenticeships to 14.

Within the centre-right, the debacle over the CPE has brought about a power shift that is expected to weigh on next year's presidential election.

Both Chirac, 73, and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, 52, who fathered the CPE, have seen their approval ratings plunge.

Late Monday on French television Villepin admitted the CPE crisis had "indeed been an ordeal, a very difficult time," but said he had "learned some lessons, perhaps coming out of it with more experience."

French newspapers were scathing about the outcome of the crisis.

"Without flowers or wreaths, the CPE was dispatched to the graveyard of still-born laws," wrote the left-wing Libération, accusing Villepin of behaving with "incomprehensible stubbornness" throughout the conflict.

"There is one serious casualty — it is Dominique de Villepin, who stays prime minister but who can draw a line under his hopes for the Elysée," wrote the regional newspaper L'Alsace.

The conservative Le Figaro implicitly criticised Villepin's methods, but said the centre-right had been taught a valuable lesson about how to tackle reform.

"True reforms are not carried out by heading alone into battle," it wrote.

Le Figaro also published an interview with Villepin's arch-rival Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right frontrunner for the presidential election, in which he stressed his commitment to radical economic reform.

"If we want to restore hope to the French people, great changes are essential," Sarkozy told the newspaper.

"The CPE may have given the impression that young people were being stigmatised. I would not want the idea of reform to be swept away because of this unfortunate case," Sarkozy told the paper.

As head of the ruling UMP party, Sarkozy played a lead role in the negotiations that saw the CPE scrapped and has emerged stronger from the crisis, according to more than half of the French public.

Defying the establishment consensus, Sarkozy advocates a clean break with France's economic model, notably by freeing up labour markets.

Meanwhile the head of the MEDEF business association, Laurence Parisot, called for an in-depth debate on labour flexibility, a notion reviled by French unions.

Parisot warned unions against crying victory over the CPE, saying: "With victories like that, we will soon all be losers."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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