Villepin reassures unions, defends policies
7th October 2005, 0 comments
PARIS, Oct 7 (AFP) - French prime minister Dominique de Villepin responded to critics of his economic programme, two days after a nationwide strike brought hundreds of thousands of people into the street.
In his first prime-time television interview since taking office four months ago, de Villepin said late Thursday that he had taken note of the "discontent", the "concern", the "discouragement" and "scepticism" expressed by demonstrators on Tuesday.
"I want to respond to our compatriots, and I want at the same time to propose to the social partners frank and quick discussions," he said, promising to start talks "over the coming weeks".
The country's biggest unions, which organised Tuesday's mass demonstrations, said more than a million people turned out to rail against Villepin's plans for privatisations and changes to hiring and firing practices.
Police put the number at around half that.
Five of the country's biggest trade unions called the stoppage to protest the cautious reform policies of de Villepin's centre-right government and to push for pay rises.
Although de Villepin broached the main concern -- a new labour contract, introduced recently by government decree -- which makes it easier for companies with fewer than 20 staff to hire and fire workers in their first two years of employment, he said the contract was here to stay.
He told France 2 television that a worker would normally have "several jobs" over his or her career nowadays, and that discussions with unions should focus on securing workers' overall career paths, rather than particular jobs, by providing training and help in getting jobs.
The unions were backed in their protests by a rare show of unity from the country's left and far-left parties, still smarting from their bitter internecine rift over the EU constitution, which was rejected in a referendum in May.
The strike came at a sensitive time for de Villepin, who has been rocked onto the back foot by the crisis over the National Corsica Mediterranean Company (SNCM) which operates ferries between Corsica and north Africa and ports on the Mediterranean coast.
Plans to sell off the heavily-indebted concern sparked days of violence in Corsica, a near-blockade of the island, and the shutdown of France's largest port of Marseille.
Villepin, who is a close ally of president Jacques Chirac, is widely credited with an accomplished performance during his four months in office -- and his ratings have been edging upwards.
But he has been criticised for his handling of the SNCM dispute, and the wave of social discontent was seen as a key test.
The unions, who have promised more protests unless their demands are met, said they were unimpressed with Villepin's comments.
"Nothing new," the secretary general of the Force Ouvrière union, Jean-Claude Mailly, told AFP.
"Nothing concrete," said the secretary general of the CFE-CGC union, Jean-Louis Walter.
The French press, which gave wide coverage to the television appearance on Friday, also was apparently unconvinced.
"Villepin should commit himself to giving the French concrete and fast measures," the conservative Le Figaro said.
"There are still many sceptics" despite his attempts to "calm things down, de-dramatise, bring together, to try to convince the right and left," the Parisien daily said.
Late last month Villepin for the first time overtook interior minister and ruling party chief Nicolas Sarkozy as the most popular figure on the right.
Till now Sarkozy -- an outspoken liberal -- has been regarded as the clear front-runner for the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party in 2007 presidential elections.
Subject: French news