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Student leaders snubb invitation from French Prime minister

Written by: Staff

PARIS, Mar 25: Four French student leaders today snubbed an invitation from the prime minister to hold talks on a new youth jobs contract, calling instead for a big turnout at protests and a general strike due on Tuesday.

''For two months, young people and working people have expressed their worries and rejection of the First Job Contract that makes a period of poverty a mandatory phase for an entire generation,'' said student leader Bruno Julliard, as he read out a letter signed by him and three other leaders.

The leaders, speaking outside Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's office, called for a ''massive mobilisation'' on Tuesday against the First Job Contract (CPE) for people under 26, which allows employers to fire them without giving a reason during a two-year trial period.

Strikes are expected to disrupt public transport and authorities have warned of likely disruptions to flights. With many schools closed that day, working parents will need to take time off too.

Students have blocked dozens of universities and school children and parents joined large protest marches last Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday that degenerated into fights between police and rioters in Paris and other cities.

The four student leaders did not go inside for the meeting requested by Villepin, although three moderate student leaders, who have not been involved in the protests, did meet him.

Afterwards, Villepin said he wanted to find a solution.

''I want to respond to the two main preoccupations of the young about the CPE -- the period of two years and the conditions of ending the contract,'' he said, adding more meetings with the students were planned next week.

SARKOZY CALLS FOR COMPROMISE Nicolas Sarkozy, widely seen as the main rival to Villepin on the right ahead of 2007 presidential elections, renewed a call for a compromise in a speech to his UMP party.

''Twenty years of mass unemployment, 15 years of mediocre economic growth, 10 years of sluggish purchasing power, seven political changes since 1981 -- how can we blame the young for saying out loud what their parents think?'' he said.

''Knowing how to reach a compromise, that is being courageous and useful to France,'' Sarkozy said.

Villepin, who rammed the measure through parliament, says the CPE will help cut youth unemployment of around 23 percent.

Opponents say the contract will create a generation of throwaway young workers with no job security. The student leaders say they do not want to talk about changes to the CPE but want it withdrawn altogether.

Last Thursday, rampaging youths torched cars, looted shops and robbed student demonstrators at the end of protest marches in Paris and major provincial cities.

''All this needs to end as soon as possible, because every day that goes by adds to the conditions for a confrontation ...

and maybe for a drama,'' said Sarkozy, who as interior minister is also responsible for the police.

In 1986, a conservative attempt to reform universities triggered unrest in which a student died after a police beating during a demonstration.

The opposition Socialist Party has called for a withdrawal of the CPE.

''This government plays the card of confrontation in order to make people forget its arrogance and incompetence,'' said Segolene Royal, a possible Socialist presidential candidate.


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