Protestors still out in force despite Chirac concessions

4th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 4, 2006 (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of people joined a new wave of protests across France on Tuesday aiming to kill off a contested youth jobs reform, despite concessions from President Jacques Chirac and imminent talks to end the month-long crisis.

PARIS, April 4, 2006 (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of people joined a new wave of protests across France on Tuesday aiming to kill off a contested youth jobs reform, despite concessions from President Jacques Chirac and imminent talks to end the month-long crisis.

Unions and student groups mobilised in nearly 200 towns and cities for a fifth day of action to push for complete abrogation of the government's unpopular First Employment Contract (CPE).

Bernard Thibault, of the General Labour Confederation, said the turnout was "comparable to that on March 28," when more than one million people — up to three times that number, according to union figures — took to the streets.

Police in Paris were on standby to head off any repeat of the violence that has marred previous demonstrations.

The dispute over the CPE has caused political upheaval at the heart of the government and anguished soul-searching about the state of modern France.

The measure was signed into law over the weekend but immediately suspended by Chirac while a new version is drafted in an attempt to end the crisis.

Commuters faced some inconvenience from transport strikes, but disruption was limited, with all Paris metro trains running and 70 percent of TGV fast trains. Scores of domestic and European flights were cancelled thanks to action by air-traffic controllers.

In the northern port of Calais, ferries for England were prevented from leaving the quayside.

Conceived by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin 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 popular backlash, with opponents accusing Villepin of trampling on hard-won labour rights and railroading the measure through parliament without due consultation with unions and employers.

In a bid to defuse one of the most turbulent episodes in his 11-year presidency, Chirac agreed on Friday to change the CPE's two most contentious provisions: reducing the two year probationary period to one year and requiring employers to provide some written reason for dismissal.

In a sign of the shifting balance of power in the government, responsibility for organising the new legislation was taken from Villepin and handed to his powerful rival, Interior Minister and UMP chief Nicolas Sarkozy, who opened contacts with unions over the weekend.

Unions and student groups insisted the CPE's abandonment is a precondition for negotiations over a new law, but there were growing indications they would be drawn into talks.

Bernard Accoyer — head of the UMP bloc in the National Assembly — said after a morning meeting with Villepin and Sarkozy that negotations between UMP deputies, students and unions would begin "from Wednesday" and take place in the Senate building.

In a letter to union leaders, Accoyer said that the agenda for talks would be completely open.

"There is no limit to our discussion. Everything is on the table. It is time to turn the page," he said.

François Chérèque of the CFDT union said: "Sarkozy has told us he is willing to discuss everything with no taboos. Accoyer has said he is willing to hear our reasons why we want the withdrawal of the CPE. If this is the approach, then we will go to the talks."

On Monday student leader Bruno Julliard said he would enter talks as long as there was a guarantee none of the CPE contacts will be signed pending the new legislation.

The scale of Tuesday's demonstrations would weigh on the outcome of the negotiations, with another mass turn-out giving extra leverage to unions in their bid to have the CPE not just watered down but abandoned completely, commentators said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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