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French strike in new assault on youth job law

Written by: Staff
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PARIS, Apr 4 (Reuters) French transport workers and teachers staged a one-day strike today and thousands of students were set to take to the streets, hoping to sound the death knell for a disputed youth hire-and-fire law.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who has championed the First Job Contract (CPE), saw poll ratings for his handling of the economy slide to the lowest level since he took office nearly a year ago, in a survey released today.

Opponents of the regulations want at least as many people to take to the streets as a week ago, when between one and three million protesters marched through French cities in the biggest demonstration the country has seen for decades.

Only two high-speed trains out of three left from Paris stations today morning, and some suburban trains were cancelled. But compared to last week, Paris underground services were only slightly disrupted, and public transport in northern cities, such as Lille, was not affected by strikes.

''The aim of the protests is to secure the death of the CPE,'' said CFDT trade union leader Francois Chereque, stressing the protests would not let up despite a number of concessions from the government.

''The movement does not cease to surprise us. And when you less expect it we are the strongest,'' he told RTL radio.

''It's all a bit perplexing. You wouldn't get this kind of problem in other countries,'' said one commuter who identified herself only as Olga as she waited with others for a train at Gare St-Lazare station in central Paris.

Civil aviation authorities said there were delays of around 30 to 90 minutes at French airports. Student groups have said they would try to block roads, railways and airports.

President Jacques Chirac has urged a softening of key parts of the legislation and his conservatives yesterday hinted at further climb-downs on the measure, intended to make it easier for firms to hire and fire young workers.

MASS POLICE PRESENCE But unions vowed to resist their overtures for talks unless they pledged to scrap the CPE and start anew on ways to tackle chronic youth joblessness which is stuck at around 22 per cent.

''I hope that after the meetings we should have in coming days, there will be a clear message that the CPE will never be applied,'' Chereque said.

A mass police presence, including some 4,000 in Paris, will be deployed to stop a re-run of violence on March 28, when police in the capital used tear gas on hundreds of youths who threw bottles and petrol bombs.

Chirac's declaration on Friday that he would sign the CPE bill even as he called for amendments, seen as a bid to stave off the risk that Villepin, a long-time ally, would resign.

But the move could weaken Villepin and boost the hand of Nicolas Sarkozy, interior minister and chief of Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party who will now have a key role in any amendments and negotiations with critics of the contract.

Sarkozy, whose relations with Chirac are strained, nurtures hopes of beating Villepin off to be the right's candidate for president in the 2007 elections.

A survey by pollsters BVA showed just 25 per cent of the those questioned on April 1 approved Villepin's handling of the economy. That was five points down on a month before and worse than the lows set by his predecessor Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Chirac requested that the maximum period of the contract during which a young employee could be summarily fired be cut from two years to one. He also insisted that employees be given the right to know why they were being fired.

Some 55 per cent of French think these measures are insufficient, the BVA survey showed.

REUTERS DKS SP1251

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