Pressure on Chirac to intervene in CPE protests

29th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 29, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was under intense pressure Wednesday to intervene in the spiralling dispute over his government's youth jobs law, which the day before brought out more than a million people onto the streets.

PARIS, March 29, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was under intense pressure Wednesday to intervene in the spiralling dispute over his government's youth jobs law, which the day before brought out more than a million people onto the streets.

Union leaders who organised one of the biggest protests of recent French history urged the president to use his powers to stop the controversial measure, which was voted through parliament two weeks ago and is waiting to pass into law.

Till now the 73 year-old president has been discreetly supportive of his embattled prime minister Dominique de Villepin, whose fight to introduce the First Employment Contract (CPE) has left him increasingly isolated even within the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.

An announcement from the Elysee palace early Wednesday said that Chirac will speak publicly on the CPE "in the coming days" but it did not say when or give any indication of which way he is leaning.

Conceived by Villepin to loosen the labour market and bring down youth unemployment, the CPE has provoked a massive backlash from the political left -- with an alliance of unions, student groups and political parties coordinating three weeks of escalating protests.

Unions said that on Tuesday up to three million people marched through French cities to demand withdrawal of the measure, which makes it easier to hire and fire young people, though the police figure was just over one million.

Once again there was violence on the fringes of the Paris rally, with police making more than 500 arrests. Some 150 people were remanded in custody to face charges.

Villepin's political future appeared increasingly on the line, as a growing number of UMP deputies spoke out in favour of negotiations and his arch-rival Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy sought to distance himself from the row.

In an interview with Le Parisien newspaper, Sarkozy -- like Villepin a presidential hopeful in next year's election -- said "when there is a difference of views there has to be a compromise. There's no shame in it. It's not a dirty word. Real negotiations have to begin with no preconditions."

Villepin has vowed to see the CPE into law, offering only "adjustments" on its two most contentious provisions: the two-year trial period, and the free hand given during that time to employers to fire under 26 year-olds.

With an increasingly emboldened opposition demanding complete abandonment of the project, the unions sent a letter to Chirac late Tuesday urging him to send the law back before parliament for a new debate.

Attention in the row was turning to the country's Constitutional Council -- the state body that decides on the constitutionality of new laws -- which is set to rule Thursday on an appeal against the CPE brought by the opposition Socialist Party (PS).

A ruling against the CPE would immediately stop the power-struggle, but if -- as government officials insisted was more likely -- it says the CPE conforms with the constitution, then Chirac could promulgate the law as early as Friday.

However many UMP deputies including Sarkozy were pressing for a cooling-off period in which talks with the opposition could be launched.

Villepin, a former diplomat who served for many years as Chirac's cabinet secretary and has a close personal relationship with the president, was said by commentators to be playing a high risk game -- banking that opposition to the CPE will tail off once it is in effect and producing results.

But Sarkozy and many in the UMP are fearful that the row has already done enormous damage to the whole of the ruling party, unified the PS and boosted the left's chances in the 2007 presidential race.

Writing in Liberation newspaper, one of the country's top political commentators Alain Duhamel said that Chirac's instinct forged over many years in power was to give way to the rising tide of street protests.

However he was bound by an intense personal bond with the prime minister "which makes the president more dependent on Villepin than the other way round," Duhamel said.

The centre-left Le Monde newspaper said Villepin "has his back to the wall."

"If he gives way, he's lost. ... But if he persists, he deepens even further the political crisis that he has unleashed," it said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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