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French PM under pressure after student protest

Written by: Staff
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PARIS, Mar 12 (Reuters) French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin faced the biggest test of his 10 months in office today as he prepared to defend youth labour reforms which have sparked student protests and sent his popularity tumbling.

Villepin was due to give a major television interview a day after police smashed their way into Paris's Sorbonne University to end the first student occupation since a May 1968 student revolt that weakened his political idol Charles de Gaulle.

French media said Villepin, a likely contender to succeed conservative President Jacques Chirac in elections next year, looked increasingly isolated over his proposals to loosen France's rigid labour laws to try to reduce youth unemployment.

''Villepin alone against everyone,'' headlined Le Parisien today.

''Villepin's big gamble,'' declared Journal du Dimanche.

''Faced by student opposition, Villepin will have to yield some ground without losing face. While the parliamentary majority supports him officially, in reality he faces this test very much alone,'' Le Parisien reported.

Appointed by Chirac in May 2005 after his conservative government had been dealt a serious blow by defeat in a referendum on Europe, Villepin took charge with a fiery personal style that at first secured him a firm footing in the polls.

But a series of mishaps from suburban unrest late last year to a pick-up in unemployment, a row over privatisation and a health scare in France's Indian Ocean island of Reunion have piled pressure on Villepin and left him battling on all fronts.

His number two in the conservative government, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also seen as his main rival for the conservative nomination in 2007 presidential elections, cut short a trip to the French West Indies because of the protests.

Both men are anxious to avoid any mis-steps in response to the rioting, after Sarkozy was widely said to have blundered by referring to last year's suburban protesters as ''riff-raff''.

Opposition Socialists said the government was out of touch and urged Villepin to back down on the labour reforms.

Student leaders said they planned more demonstrations for Thursday and Saturday.

The labour reforms are the brainchild of Villepin, a member of the ruling Gaullist UMP party, and came in response to the widespread suburban unrest around France five months ago that was blamed in part on high levels of youth unemployment.

His First Employment Contract (CPE) would make it easier for bosses to hire and fire people under the age of 26 in the hope this would open chances for young people with few prospects.

Villepin says these rules will make it easier for employers to take a risk hiring young people and create jobs.

But students see them as discriminatory and a threat to France's system of benefits and employment protection.

Commentators say Villepin, who has never been elected, is paying a price for rushing the reforms through parliament using a fast-track procedure and without talking to France's unions.

He is expected to defend the reforms in his TF1 television interview at 1900 GMT while trying to separate them from free-market principles which are widely unpopular in France.

A senior Gaullist figure, National Assembly speaker Jean-Louis Debre, who does not serve in government but whose voice is influential, raised the prospect of some compromise.

''The CPE will not solve everything. It can certainly be improved. But it is a way of getting young people out of their current impasse,'' he told Journal du Dimanche in an interview.

Authorities meanwhile said the Sorbonne would remain closed tomorrow to allow a clean-up after the three-day sit-in.

Education Minister Gilles de Robien held up torn books as he toured ransacked offices yesterday and university authorities accused protesters of damaging France's national heritage.

The Sorbonne is home to part of the national archive including a collection of pre-French Revolution texts.

Students joined by other protesters outside the Sorbonne argued late yesterday over how much damage had been done.

''We were all very much afraid of damaging the national heritage,'' 20-year-old student Marianne said.

''Oh yes, whose heritage is that? It's for the elite,'' shouted a woman in her late forties.

REUTERS KD RK2113

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