The street wins: Chirac scraps youth jobs plan
PARIS, April 10, 2006 (AFP) — French President Jacques Chirac scrapped his government's hotly contested youth jobs scheme Monday, handing a major victory to unions and students after one of the country's biggest political crises in decades.
Chirac announced after a high-level meeting that the youth contract, which would have made it easier to fire young workers, would be “replaced” with new measures to help disadvantaged young people into work.
It was hailed as a major victory by French union leaders, who had mobilised millions of people in a sometimes violent two-month street campaign against a measure they said only increased job insecurity.
The decision is a serious blow to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin who had championed the scheme as a cornerstone of efforts to fight unemployment.
Villepin — whose approval ratings are at an all-time low, his chances for next year’s presidential election all but destroyed — confirmed the decision in a brief televised address.
“The necessary conditions of trust and serenity were not present, either among young people or businesses, to allow the implementation of the First Employment Contract (CPE),” Villepin said.
He said he had wanted to “act fast” against youth unemployment, which runs at 22 percent in France, by proposing a strong and viable reform.
“It was not understood by everyone, and I regret that,” he added.
Unions and student leaders, who had set the government a deadline of April 17 — Easter Monday — to withdraw the CPE, were expected to declare an end to their protest movement following a meeting later Monday.
France’s biggest union, the CGT, proclaimed “success”, while the CFDT’s François Chérèque said: “The goal of the CPE’s withdrawal has been achieved.”
Student leader Bruno Juillard said Chirac’s announcement was “a decisive victory”, but urged protestors to “keep up the pressure” until parliament votes on the legislation superseding the CPE.
Another student leader called however for an end to blockades that continued to disrupt almost half of France’s 84 universities.
Villepin’s CPE, which would have allowed employers to fire workers aged under 26 without reason during the first two years, was designed as a tool against youth unemployment.
Under legislation drawn up by the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), it is to be replaced with a package of measures helping “young people in difficulty” into work, notably via state subsidies to employers.
The new measures, to be submitted to parliament later Monday and put to a vote in the coming days, will cost a total of EUR 450 million for the period 2006-2007.
Within the centre-right, the debacle has brought about a power shift that is expected to weigh on next year’s presidential election.
Chirac, 73, and Villepin, 52, his friend and ally, have both seen their approval ratings plunge to 25 percent, and 85 percent of the public believe they have emerged weakened.
While Villepin was criticised as stubborn and imperious for his handling of the reform, Chirac was ridiculed for a determination to protect Villepin — on whom commentators say he is increasingly dependent — at all costs.
In contrast, more than half of the public believed that Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, who as head of the UMP took a lead role in negotiating a way out of the crisis, has come out stronger.
Part of a broader law on equal opportunities, the CPE was drawn up in response to the riots that gripped poor French suburbs last November, which were largely blamed on unemployment.
But it provoked a massive backlash, with students and unions accusing Villepin of trampling on hard-won labour rights and discriminating against young people.
Millions of people joined in street protests, which repeatedly descended into violence and vandalism, against a measure seen as the start of an assault on French job protection laws.
Subject: French news