It’s up to Chirac: President expected to stick with CPE
PARIS, March 31, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was to make a long-awaited address to the nation on his government's disputed youth jobs contract Friday, amid predictions that he will defy the growing protest movement and sign the measure quickly into law.
Opposition leaders warned that the president risks triggering a national crisis if he ratifies the First Employment Contract (CPE), which has already sparked three weeks of at times violent strikes and demonstrations.
But government officials and media commentators were unanimous in predicting that Chirac will use his evening address to stand by his embattled prime minister Dominique de Villepin and announce he will sign the CPE onto the statute books.
“Jacques Chirac has decided to promulgate the CPE,” headlined the conservative Le Figaro newspaper, while the left-wing Liberation said that by refusing the refer the law back to parliament — as the opposition is demanding — “Chirac takes on the street.”
A contract that loosens job protection for under 26 year-olds, the CPE has turned into one of the worst crises in Chirac’s 11 year presidency — sparking a protest movement that on Tuesday brought more than a million people onto the streets.
More than half of France’s 84 universities remained shut or disrupted, as well as hundreds of lycees, as students carried out more wild-cat actions — blocking roads and invading railway tracks. Another day of nationwide strikes and demonstrations is planned for Tuesday.
On Thursday the last legal obstacle to the CPE fell away when the country’s Constitutional Council — which vets new laws — ruled that the measure was not in violation of the 1958 constitution.
Chirac was to make a rare address to the nation carried live on all the main television channels at 8pm. The last time he made a similar speech was during the riots in France’s high-immigration suburbs last November.
Leaders of the opposition alliance of students, unions and left-wing political parties urged him not to risk further confrontation, but use his powers to send the CPE for a second reading in the National Assembly.
“If he decides not to promulgate, he takes a decision of conciliation. He opens the way for a new debate … But if he takes the other decision — promulgation — then it is he who is opening up a major crisis,” said François Hollande, First Secretary of the Socialist party (PS).
But Chirac was widely expected to tell the nation that once the CPE had been voted through parliament and approved by the Constitutional Council, he had no choice as president but to sign it into law.
To assuage opposition anger, he was expected to offer roundtable talks similar to the negotiations that helped end the May 1968 student uprising and worker strikes. If the talks produced new ideas on youth employment, these could eventually replace the CPE, government officials said.
Press commentators said political imperatives were pressing on the president: if he failed to sign the CPE into law, his close ally Villepin would almost certainly resign — casting a dark shadow over his last year in office.
“In addition the withdrawal of a law properly voted by parliament would be heavy with implications. It would mark the final defeat of representative democracy … by the power of the street. What would remain of the state’s authority?” said Le Figaro.
An open-ended contract that can be terminated without explanation during a two-year trial period, the CPE is designed to bring down France’s high youth unemployment rate by making it more attractive for employers to take on young staff.
It was passed by parliament two weeks ago as part of an equal opportunities law designed to help residents of high-immigration suburbs which were hit by last November’s riots and where youth unemployment is higher than 50 percent.
But opponents say it is a step back from France’s hard-won system of social protection toward what they see as the cut-throat labour policies that prevail in Britain and the United States.
Subject: French news