WORLD / Europe

Protesters reject Chirac's compromise
(International Herald Tribune)
Updated: 2006-04-03 09:05

France prepared Sunday for another week of protests and a nation- wide strike on Tuesday after student organizations and labor unions rejected a compromise offer by President Jacques Chirac on the government's new youth employment law.

Leaders of students unions hold a press conference after a two-day meeting in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France, Sunday, April 2, 2006. President Jacques Chirac signed a contested measure to promote jobs for youths into law on Sunday even though he has said it would be replaced by a modified version to defuse a crisis that has led to violent demonstrations and dealt France's prime minister a major setback. [AP]
Chirac formally enacted the legislation on Sunday and sought at the same time to defuse a political crisis by calling on lawmakers to soften two of the law's most contested provisions: a probation period of two years and the right of employers to fire workers with no justification during that period.

On the face of it, Chirac's decision to sign the law was a face-saving effort for the embattled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who had almost single-handedly championed the measures. But by leaving changes in the hands of the governing Union for a Popular Movement party, or UMP, the president effectively bolstered Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Villepin's main rival on the right, who also is head of the UMP.

"We now have a clear sense that we are no longer dealing with the prime minister but with the UMP lawmakers, and their leader is Nicolas Sarkozy," Fran?ois Ch¨¦r¨¨que, head of the CFDT, France's second largest union, said in a radio interview over the weekend.

But critics of the law appeared more determined than ever to bring it down, with or without modifications.

"The declarations by the president will boost the mobilization" on Tuesday, said Jean-Claude Mailly, leader of the labor union Force Ouvri¨¨re. "I have made a list of all strike notices. It will be a big day."

Like last Tuesday, when strikes were organized across much of the country and hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of Paris alone, public transportation is expected to be significantly affected Tuesday. Both the national rail company, the SNCF, and the Paris transportation system, the RATP, predicted disruptions, while walkouts also were planned by employees at Air France.

Six of seven civil service unions said they backed the strike and, in a sign that the protests this week may surpass last week's, workers in media, banking and telecommunications said they would join the effort.

In addition, the opposition Socialist Party made a formal call for the first time to join the strikes. On Sunday members were at the Richard Lenoir market in Paris, near the Bastille monument, distributing fliers stating: "Now more than ever: Withdraw the CPE," the French acronym for the labor measure.

Meanwhile, a new opinion survey by the CSA institute, published Sunday in Le Parisien newspaper, indicated that 62 percent of France's citizens found Chirac's offer unconvincing. Two out of three said they thought the student movement had been strengthened, and three out of four thought that Villepin, the architect of the law, had been weakened.

The president's double-barreled approach of enacting the legislation while calling for changes has left the country in a legal limbo: Companies have the right to employ new staff members under the new youth contract in its current form, even though the president has asked them not to do so until the changes have gone through Parliament.

In a televised address Friday night, which was watched by more than 20 million people, Chirac asked that lawmakers halve the current probation period to one year and oblige employers to justify any decision to dismiss a young employee.

Laurence Parisot, head of the Medef, France's biggest employer federation, said on Europe 1 radio over the weekend that she hoped companies would not use the new contract before it was revised.

Jack Lang, one of many potential Socialist presidential candidates, was quoted in Le Parisian on Sunday as saying, "Legally speaking, it's incomprehensible to sign a law and say that you should not apply it."

And in a front-page editorial in the newspaper Le Monde, its publisher Jean-Marie Colombani described Chirac's request as a nondecision that leaves the country adrift: "He did not come down on either side. He was content to evade the issue."

The leader of the UMP in the lower house of Parliament, Bernard Accoyer, said he would try to meet with union leaders to discuss changes in the law as early as Tuesday. He said that, at the earliest, a new bill could be expected in early May.

Sporadic protests against the legislation continued through the weekend, although the police said the country was relatively calm compared with the heated end of the week. About 1,500 demonstrators assembled in central Paris, while 300 people organized a counter-demonstration nearby. Students, who late last week embarked on a series of wildcat protests, pledged similar actions in the days ahead.