Villepin gives some ground; calls for talks with unions
PARIS, March 23, 2006 (AFP) - Under pressure from another day of protests against his contested youth jobs plan, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin gave his first ground Thursday by offering open-agenda talks with trade unions and student groups.
In what was interpreted as a gesture of conciliation, Villepin wrote to union leaders suggesting roundtable discussions on his First Employment Contract (CPE) — the new contract for under 26 year-olds that has sparked more than two weeks of at times violent demonstrations.
Villepin promised that the agenda of the talks would be “completely open” and they would most likely take place after next Tuesday when nationwide strikes and protest marches against the CPE are planned, union officials said.
Union leaders were to meet later Thursday to determine their response.
Speaking in the eastern city of Metz, Villepin said, “I hope to meet soon with the social partners (unions and employers) so that we can together bring responses to the concerns of our country’s youth.”
The prime minister has come under growing criticism — even from within his ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) — for failing to respond to the growing campaign of popular opposition, and Thursday’s initiative was the first hint of a search for a compromise.
It came as tens of thousands of university and high-school students once again skipped classes and took to the streets in scores of demonstrations — the biggest heading towards the Invalides esplanade in central Paris during the afternoon.
Some 3,000 police officers were deployed in the capital to head off the violence which has erupted on the fringes of other protest marches, most seriously on Saturday in Paris when a demonstrator fell into a coma after being caught in a baton-charge.
Violent incidents were reported Thursday morning in the southern Paris suburb of Savigny-sur-Orge, where police used tear gas to disperse around 100 youths, as well as in the southern port of Marseille. In the central city of Tours hundreds of teenagers invaded the tracks at the railway station.
On Wednesday Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy warned of the climate of lawlessness spreading to the country’s high-immigration city suburbs and reigniting the riots that raged for three weeks there last November.
An open-ended contract that can be terminated within the first two years without justification, the CPE was conceived by Villepin as a tool against France’s high youth unemployment rate which can hit more than 50 percent in the riot-hit suburbs.
But it is opposed by an alliance of students, unions and left-wing political parties, who see it as a breach in France’s hard-won system of employee protection. They have been demanding its complete withdrawal as a precondition for ending their movement.
The measure was voted through parliament two weeks ago as part of a wider equal opportunities law, and is now awaiting approval from the Constitutional Council — the body that rules on the constitutionality of laws — before coming into force.
Villepin, 52, who was appointed by President Jacques Chirac ten months ago, has staked his political future on implementation of the CPE, and it was far from clear how much he would be willing to sacrifice in the way of a compromise with opponents.
On Tuesday he told UMP deputies that he would not accept withdrawal or suspension of the contract, nor “emptying it of its essence.” However commentators Thursday said he appeared to have come under pressure from Chirac to let out some slack.
Opponents of the CPE say its two most contentious features are the two-year trial period, and the “non-justification” clause which they believe gives employers too free a hand to sack young staff.
Subject: French news