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France to scrap disputed youth job contract

Written by: Staff
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PARIS, Apr 10 (Reuters) France will scrap a planned youth job contract that has provoked weeks of protests and a political crisis, President Jacques Chirac said today.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who has championed the job law and seen his poll ratings plunge as a result, said in a televised statement he regretted that events had shown the contract could not be applied.

He did not spell out the implications for his own political future, put at risk as a result of his handling of the dispute.

''The president of the republic has decided to replace article 8 of the equal opportunities law with measures to help disadvantaged young people find work,'' said a statement from the presidency.

One student leader said the First Job Contract (CPE) was effectively dead.

The new measures in the law would address the problem of youth unemployment of 22 per cent, quell the protests and also find a way of saving face for Villepin, commentators said.

Details of the measures were expected later in the day and new legislation could enter parliament as early as this week.

''The necessary conditions of confidence and calm are not there, either among young people, or companies, to allow the application of the First Job Contract,'' Villepin said in his brief televised statement after meetings with Chirac and other senior ruling conservatives.

Villepin said the contract would be replaced by proposals aimed at helping disadvantaged young job-seekers and he said he would open a discussion ''without preconditions'' with social partners on how to provide youth unemployment.

The protests, and a perception that Villepin has been unresponsive to voter sentiment over the contract, has damaged the popularity of the prime minister and his hopes of becoming the ruling party's candidate for presidential elections in 2007.

A poll for Liberation newspaper showed Villepin's popularity stood at 49 percent in the first week of January but had fallen to 25 percent this weekend. Negative opinion of Chirac rose from 56 percent to 64 percent over the same period.

''CPE IS DEAD'' Chirac and Villepin were careful in their statements to say the CPE was being ''replaced''. Others said it was dead.

''The players in the crisis have difficulty pronouncing the words repeal. The CPE is dead, the CPE seems to be finished ...

and I think they must have the courage finally to say it clearly,'' Julie Coudry, president of the student confederation, said on LCI television.

Asked if she was satisfied, Coudry replied: ''Of course. I think we have a mobilisation that has been organised for two and a half months by 12 organisations, with one main aim, which is the withdrawal of the CPE.

''Today I think we can say that they have finally understood and that we are satisfied.'' Dominique Paille, a UMP deputy considered close to Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy who had for weeks called for a compromise on the contract, said: ''The president of the republic is withdrawing the CPE. It's a measure that corresponds with what the entire population has been waiting for.'' Sarkozy, vilified by many protesters, is the head of the ruling party and a rival with Villepin for the party's candidacy next year when Chirac is expected to step down. The Socialist Party has yet to name its candidate.

The ''easy hire, easy fire'' CPE would have allowed firms to sack workers under 26 without giving a reason during a two-year trial period.

Students were planning fresh protest marches tomorrow.

Hundreds marched through Paris yesterday to demand that classes resume and students end a blockade that has brought many high schools and universities to a standstill.

REUTERS SHR HT1540

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