Villepin: steeling for a showdown over CPE

20th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 20, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was steeling himself for a showdown over his contested youth jobs plan on Monday, ignoring an ultimatum for its withdrawal from the organisers of a growing protest movement.

PARIS, March 20, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was steeling himself for a showdown over his contested youth jobs plan on Monday, ignoring an ultimatum for its withdrawal from the organisers of a growing protest movement.

"Laws of the Republic, voted democratically by parliament, must be respected," Villepin said in a letter sent to members of his centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Union and student leaders were to meet later to determine the next phase in their campaign against the First Employment Contract (CPE), amid signs that the stand-off with the government will intensify in the days ahead with a possible general strike.

After hundreds of thousands took part in at times violent mass protests on Saturday, organisers gave Villepin a 48-hour deadline to withdraw the contract, which allows companies to fire employees aged under 26 without explanation during a two-year trial period.

But Villepin told UMP deputies that the CPE was "an essential tool for freeing up the labour market and creating jobs".

"It is also an important lever for equal opportunities. All young people, whatever their origin, must be able to practise a trade that corresponds with their qualifications."

The prime minister won support from his close ally President Jacques Chirac, to whom opponents of the CPE appealed earlier to use his influence to have the contract abandoned.

But Chirac said that "it is essential to take steps for youth employment, and the CPE is a sign of this determination on the part of the government and parliament. Questions and doubts are being expressed and that is wholly legitimate ... but they must not lead us to do nothing."

Conceived by Villepin as a tool for bringing down France's high levels of youth unemployment, which is as high as 50 percent in areas hit by last year's riots, the CPE was adopted by parliament 10 days ago as part of a wider equal opportunities bill and is now waiting to be written into the statute books.

But the measure has sparked a powerful opposition alliance of unions, students and left-wing parties, who say it is a charter for employer exploitation and a breach of hard-won social rights.

Three days of nationwide demonstrations over the last two weeks have drawn hundreds of thousands onto the streets in protests that on Saturday ended in several hours of running battles in Paris between police and a small minority of rioters.

Most of the country's 85 universities remained partially or totally shut down by student strikes on Monday, and for the first time dozens of secondary schools across the country were also affected.

Union leaders have raised the possibility of staging a day of national strikes during the week, and the UNEF student union has called for a "day of action" Tuesday and demonstrations on Thursday.

"There is no risk of things tailing off, because we have sizeable reserves among the secondary school and university students. We can step up the mobilisation. We have got such a dynamic behind us we are bound to make the government give way," said UNEF president Bruno Julliard.

Sociologist Robert Rochefort told Le Parisien newspaper that the vast majority of student protesters were from middle-class families and that there were few from the poor, high-immigration city suburbs that were the centre of the rioting in November 2005.

"It is the anguish of the middle classes that is being expressed -- a desire for the status quo, for a return to the French society of 30 years ago," he said.

The struggle over the CPE has turned into the most serious crisis for Villepin since he was appointed by Chirac 10 months ago, following the debacle over France's rejection of the European Union's draft constitution.

Opinion polls over the weekend showed that his satisfaction rating had plunged to 37 percent -- a drop of 15 points in two months.

An LH2 poll in Libération newspaper on Monday showed that 35 percent of the public want the CPE scrapped and 38 percent said it should be modified.

Seventy-one percent agreed with the statement that France was in a "profound social crisis which will grow in the weeks ahead".

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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