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Chirac's party chiefs meet unions on job law

Written by: Staff

PARIS, Apr 5: French unions are due to meet senior figures from President Jacques Chirac's right for talks today on a contested youth jobs law, bolstered by huge street protests demanding it should be scrapped.

Conservative lawmakers have offered no-holds-barred talks on the First Job Contract (CPE) but stopped short of promising to bury a law only on the statute book since Sunday.

Unions read the last rites for the measure, saying more than 3 million people in rallies across France called for the law to be ditched, a clear rebuff to concessions offered by Chirac.

Police put the national turnout at just over one million.

Though most marches passed off peacefully, 383 people were arrested in post-march clashes in Paris. Arrests were also made in western Rennes after youths stoned police.

A top employers' leader said the two-month crisis was beginning to hurt the economy and urged all sides to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin championed the CPE jobs law as a tool to cut youth unemployment of 22 percent but critics say by allowing firms to lay off under-26s any time in a two-year period the measure fuels job insecurity.

Anxious not to lose his prime minister with a year to go to presidential elections, Chirac has thrown his weight behind Villepin despite misgivings about his choice of tactics.

But Villepin's approval ratings have slumped 20 points to 28 percent in two months, according to a new poll, and badly hurt his thinly veiled ambition to run for president in 2007.

And Chirac has effectively sidelined his long-time aide, and cast the governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) in the unlikely role of crisis mediator with union bosses.

In a letter to union confederations, senior UMP figures, Bernard Accoyer and Josselin de Rohan, offered to debate ''without bias'' a new draft law designed to modify the CPE.

Meetings were due to get underway at 18 hrs. Accoyer and Rohan were also to meet representatives from student bodies and employers' groups.

The UMP's frontline role has enhanced the influence of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the UMP leader and Villepin's bitter rival to lead conservatives in the presidential polls.

Whatever the political fallout of the crisis, Laurence Parisot, head of the Medef employers' group, said it was now hurting trade and instability could hit order books.

''We have to realise that this threatens the economy of our country ... and ask ourselves how we get out of this unfortunate situation as quickly as possible,'' she said on LCI television.

Last autumn's riots temporarily hit confidence in the euro zone's second biggest economy before bouncing back. On Friday, Finance Minister Thierry Breton said the current difficulties had not hurt the economy, despite data showing the contrary.


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