Unions take to the streets against jobs scheme

7th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 7, 2006 (AFP) - The French government faced a major challenge from the street Tuesday as students and trade unions staged nationwide protests against a new jobs contract intended to bring down youth unemployment.

PARIS, March 7, 2006 (AFP) - The French government faced a major challenge from the street Tuesday as students and trade unions staged nationwide protests against a new jobs contract intended to bring down youth unemployment.

Several hundred thousand people took part in demonstrations in all the major cities against the First Employment Contract (CPE), which is supposed to make it more attractive to employers to take on under 26 year-olds.

Some universities including the Sorbonne in Paris were closed, the authorities fearing clashes between striking and working students, but disruption to rail and air transport was limited.

With polls showing a clear majority of the public opposed to the contract, union leaders claimed the mobilisation was a major success -- with a bigger turnout than on a previous day of action last month.

A key idea of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the CPE is aimed at cutting France's 23 percent jobless rate among under 26 year-olds -- one of the worst in Europe.

In high-immigration city suburbs, where as many as one in two young people are out of work, joblessness was seen as one of the factors behind last November's riots.

By enabling companies to sack young staff without explanation during the first two years of service, the contract is meant to provide assurance to employers fearful of being lumbered with longterm commitments if a worker proves unsuitable or economic conditions deteriorate.

But opponents say the CPE will be used by companies as a cheap-rate source of employment, further entrenching job insecurity among the young.

"We are not going to allow the right of companies to fire at the snap of a finger to become entrenched in French law. We are not going to allow France to operate under the same rules as the socially most backward countries," said Bernard Thibault of the CGT trade union.

The day of protests was a major test of resolve for Villepin, who after a long political honeymoon since his appointment in mid-2005 has seen his popularity rating fall sharply in recent weeks.

An opinion poll in Les Echos financial daily Tuesday showed that 65 percent of the population believes opposition to the CPE is justified, but the Prime Minister told the newspaper Le Parisien he had no intention of backing down.

"It is time to make decisions and stick by them. I want to convince people so that the country can pass this milestone with confidence. It takes time and perseverance, but the government has both," he said.

According to Education Minister Gilles de Robien "the real worry of the French, and not just the 500,000 who may demonstrate today, is the length of time young people are forced to wait for a job. That is the concern we are trying to answer."

A close ally of President Jacques Chirac, Villepin has been mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed him at next year's presidential elections.

However he has suffered from a number of difficulties, including an unexpected increase in the unemployment rate to 9.6 percent, the health scare over bird flu, and a row over the privatisation of the state-owned gas utility Gaz de France via a merger with the utility company Suez.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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