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Chirac's party hints at new concessions on job law

Written by: Staff

PARIS, Apr 4: President Jacques Chirac's ruling conservatives courted unions and students with hints of fresh concessions in a disputed youth job law, on the eve of new national strikes and protests.

Officials from the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) said yesterday they wanted speedy talks ''without taboos'' with opponents of the new CPE work contract for the young, widely interpreted as a signal the party is ready to make major changes to the law.

''We want an open dialogue with no taboos and no prejudices,'' UMP spokesman Luc Chatel told a news conference.

''We need to get out of this crisis as soon as possible. We are holding out our hand and want to renew dialogue.'' Today's demonstrations and strikes will be keenly watched for signs that the sometimes violent unrest of the last two months has peaked following March 28's nationwide day of action, which unions say was joined by three million demonstrators.

Aimed at tackling high youth unemployment, the CPE is intended to encourage employers to hire by allowing them to summarily fire employees under 26 within a given period. Critics say it will merely increase job insecurity.

Chirac said on Friday he would sign the contract into law, but effectively ordered its suspension pending parliamentary amendments to cut its maximum term to one year from two and to give employees the right to know why they are being fired.

His move lessened the risk that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the contract's champion and thought to be Chirac's favoured successor as president, would resign. But it could leave Villepin weakened as UMP leaders now seek a solution.

One potential winner is UMP party chief Nicolas Sarkozy, who also harbours ambitions to lead the right in 2007 presidential elections and who may emerge as mediator of a possible solution.

''VIRTUAL PRIME MINISTER'' Patrick Devedjian, a key Sarkozy aide, said the party could go beyond Chirac's concessions and make bosses give written rather than verbal reasons for dismissal -- a clause that would make it harder to sack workers under French labour law.

''Why not?'' Devedjian told Les Echos daily. ''There's no point in getting hung up about it. It's a subject of debate with the social partners. We are ready for a thorough dialogue.'' Critics said it was clear that Sarkozy was now in control.

''From now on, we have a virtual prime minister and a real one. They've kept Dominique de Villepin in his post but stripped him of all scope for doing anything,'' opposition Socialist Party spokesman Julien Dray told reporters.

Chirac's office sought to defuse such talk, saying the president hoped new proposals on the CPE would be the result of an accord between the leaders of the UMP party in the upper and lower houses of parliament and Villepin.

But Sarkozy remained in the limelight. Bruno Julliard, president of the UNEF students' union, said on French radio Sarkozy had told him in a weekend phone call that suspension of the CPE was one of a number of topics now up for debate.

''UNEF refuses to discuss adjustments to the CPE. If we've refused the CPE, it's not to have a CPE-2 or a CPE-3,'' he later said in a statement.

Business group Medef has told firms to avoid the CPE contract for now, given the uncertainty over its future.

Former conservative prime minister Edouard Balladur, who ditched an earlier attempt at a youth job contract in 1994 after street protests, said Chirac's move on Friday had effectively killed the CPE.

''It's gone, dead, everyone knows it -- one because it's not being applied and two because it's been decided to overhaul it,'' he told Europe 1 radio.


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