Paris, Apr 1: France's conservative government and left-wing opposition held emergency strategy sessions today after President Jacques Chirac both backed a disputed youth job law and called for rapid amendments to it.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called in his main rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and the pro-Chirac speakers of both houses of parliament to plot how to rush the amendments through the National Assembly as soon as possible.
Left-wing opposition parties gathered at the headquarters of the Communist Party to coordinate protest plans ahead of a nation-wide ''action day'' slated for next Tuesday. A similar protest last Tuesday mobilised over a million demonstrators.
Students held small spontaneous demonstrations across France yesterday evening after Chirac addressed the nation to announce his decision. A handful of violent protesters destroyed the office of the conservative Paris deputy Pierre Lellouche.
''Today is April Fool's Day. If this weren't so serious, I'd think the speech was delivered today,'' Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union, told Europe 1 radio.
''This confusion cannot stop the crisis,'' said the left-wing daily Liberation, criticising Chirac for signing the disputed jobs law but asking employers not to use it until a follow-up law modifies its most contested measures.
The conservative Le Figaro praised Chirac for seeking a compromise but warned that all sides -- protesters, government and opposition -- ''must enter the game before events get out of hand for all of us''.
The disputed law allows employers to fire workers under 26 without reason during their first two years. Chirac said he would sign it because parliament had passed it and France's Constitutional Council had examined and approved it.
But he effectively declared the law dead on arrival by telling Villepin to follow it up immediately with amendments that would shorten the trial period to one year and oblige employers to justify any firing.
Villepin's bid to ram through the reform, which he says is crucial to fight youth unemployment of 22 per cent, has forged such varied groups as students, workers and the divided parties of the left into a broad opposition front.
Chirac aims to defuse
''It is time to defuse the situation,'' Chirac said in the televised speech, in which he said he understood the concerns of youths who could not find jobs.
But Bernard Thibault of the pro-communist CGT union said: ''We stick to the call for mobilisation now more than ever.'' ''We are not more convinced this evening,'' said Bruno Julliard, president of student body UNEF.
BMP Paribas senior economist Dominique Barbet also saw the unrest continuing: ''The law has been largely emptied of content but the trade unions, students and opposition just refuse the law altogether, so the protests are likely to continue.'' Chirac also proposed that trade unions, students and high school pupils join what he called a ''constructive social dialogue'' to draw up the amendments to the job law. Unions and students promptly rejected the offer.
Business leaders fear more protests could damage France's image and hit investment and tourism, especially since the unrest has erupted so soon after rioting by angry youths in the poor suburbs around France's main cities late last year.
New figures on Thursday showed February unemployment stuck at 9.6 per cent, one of the highest levels in Europe. Joblessness among under 25-year-olds fell only slightly, from 22.8 per cent to 22.2 per cent.