Villepin fights for political life amid mass protests

5th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 5, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin fought for his political survival Wednesday after a month of mass protests left opponents scenting victory in their campaign against his unpopular youth jobs reform.

PARIS, April 5, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin fought for his political survival Wednesday after a month of mass protests left opponents scenting victory in their campaign against his unpopular youth jobs reform.

Emboldened by a fifth day of demonstrations Tuesday which brought between one and three million people onto the streets, unions and student groups were confident they can kill off completely his First Employment Contract (CPE).

Talks were due later Wednesday between leaders of the opposition campaign and lawmakers of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, who have been charged by President Jacques Chirac with drawing up a new text to supersede Villepin's contract.

In theory, the UMP delegation is supposed to negotiate only amendments to the CPE's main provisions, but many in the party are exhausted by weeks of crisis, annoyed by Villepin's handling of the reform, and have little interest in defending the project against a mass popular movement, commentators said.

If they give way to the union-student alliance -- which is demanding a law repealing the CPE in the next 12 days -- Villepin's authority will be dangerously undermined.

"In the corridors the taboo word 'repeal' is now on everyone's lips, even if it's not spoken out loud in order not to humiliate Villepin," Le Parisien newspaper reported.

"This is the second crisis waiting to happen: how can the prime minister - having put all his authority and weight behind the CPE -- meekly sit there while his 'baby' is voided of all substance? In other words ... will Villepin be able to stay in his job?," it asked.

A contract for under 26-year-olds that can be terminated without explanation in a two-year trial period, the CPE was personally conceived by Villepin as a tool for bringing down France's youth unemployment rate, which at 22 percent is among the worst in Europe.

But his go-it-alone style has angered many within his camp, who worry that by uniting the left-wing opposition and provoking millions into the streets he has wrought terrible damage to the centre-right's chance's at presidential elections next year.

A former diplomat who has never stood for election, Villepin owes his rise to a close alliance with Chirac -- for whom he served for many years as cabinet director -- and has no significant political network to back him through this personal crisis.

In an elaborate attempt at compromise on Friday, Chirac -- who many commentators say has become psychologically dependent on Villepin -- saved the prime minister's face by signing the CPE into law, though at the same time immediately suspending it and ordering a new version to be drafted.

But the initiative -- described by Britain's Financial Times newspaper as a "chaotic farce" -- failed to cool the protests, leaving Villepin increasingly exposed.

Villepin's fall from grace coincides with the growing importance of his arch-rival, Interior Minister and UMP chief Nicolas Sarkozy, who has never hidden his lack of enthusiasm for the CPE and is now directing negotiations over the new text.

According to France's best-known political commentator, Alain Duhamel, "Sarkozy has carried off a tactical victory over the prime minister and the head of state" and emerged as the sole front-runner for the right-wing nomination at next year's presidential election.

But he warned that Villepin -- also long regarded as a presidential hopeful -- "retains the power to cause considerable nuisance to his hated rival."

"If a realistic compromise emerges and the CPE ends up being sacrificed by the Elysee, Villepin could make a theatrical resignation, cursing the opportunists and the faint-hearted.

"He could even put himself forward for the presidency, not with any hope of winning, but with the certainty of placing a serious handicap on Nicolas Sarkozy," Duhamel said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

0 Comments To This Article