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French left-wing vows more protests, rejects talks

Written by: Staff

Paris, Apr 2: French left-wing parties rejected today a decision by President Jacques Chirac to modify a youth job law that has sparked a national crisis and said they would march to press for the measure to be scrapped.

Opposition groups said they would join students and unions in more mass protests set for April 4 despite Chirac's speech yesterday, which aimed to defuse a confrontation over the law that has put pressure on Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Under the law employers can fire workers under 26 without reason during a two-year trial period. Chirac said he would sign it and then introduce a new one to create a one-year trial period and make employers justify any firing.

Chirac missed the point of the student protests, former Socialist Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn said.

''They don't want just a trial period shortened from two to one year. They want their work contract to be the same as other workers,'' he said after the left-wing meeting.

Laurence Parisot, head of the employers' association MEDEF, backed Chirac's move and urged the government not to give in on its plan to let employers give reasons for firing only verbally.

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.

''This confusion cannot stop the crisis,'' said the left-wing daily Liberation, criticising Chirac for signing the law but asking employers not to use it until it has been modified.

SCATTERED VIOLENCE Violence broke out at some protests overnight, with demonstrators wrecking the Paris office of Pierre Lellouche, a member of parliament for the ruling UMP party. Police said they made around 100 arrests in the French capital. Protesters, who numbered more than one million last Tuesday, say the First Job Contract (CPE) creates ''Kleenex jobs'' that make it easier for firms to dispose of young workers.

Many older French workers have long-term contracts with strong job protection, which employers say puts them off adding young workers to their staff. Youth unemployment stands at 22 percent in France, far above the 9.6 percent national average.

''We ... demand the definitive withdrawal of the CPE and the opening of real negotiations with all unions, students and high school pupils before any new law goes before parliament,'' Patrick Farbiaz, a leader of the Greens party, said after a meeting.

Opposition parties would flood the country with pamphlets and launch a protest petition in the run-up to the next ''action day'' of strikes and demonstrations, Farbiaz said.

A meeting of conservatives earlier said the law's critics had to hold talks with the government before it could introduce any modifications to the law.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Villepin's main rival to become the UMP party's candidate for president in 2007, supported the call for dialogue and urged protesters to join in.

''We are all agreed on this strategy,'' he said after the meeting.

Sarkozy also informally contacted leading trade unions, inviting them for talks, said a representative of the minister.

Commentators said Chirac's long-awaited speech aimed to save face for Villepin, whose effort to ram through the reform has united students, workers and left-wing parties.

But the speech met with flat rejection from his critics and only a tepid welcome from a friendly newspaper.

The conservative Le Figaro praised Chirac for seeking a compromise but warned that all sides ''must enter the game before events get out of hand for all of us''.


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