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France faces more protests, asks if reform possible

Written by: Staff
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Paris, Apr 11: France's students and trade unions today prepared a victory parade to mark the demise of a hated youth jobs law, with politicians and analysts split over whether the hope of labour market reform was dead too.

The opponents of the First Job Contract (CPE), whose five previous protests mobilised millions across the country, vowed to keep up their guard until new measures to replace the ''easy hire, easy fire'' law for young workers have been passed.

The marches were due to start in the early afternoon. ''We are calling for the pressure to be kept up until parliament votes the repeal of the CPE, including by blocking universities if necessary,'' said Unef students' union head Bruno Julliard.

Unions refrained from calling for fresh strikes and some universities, including the protest centre at Rennes in western France, voted to reopen classes with Easter holidays and spring examinations fast approaching.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who emerged strengthened after his rival Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was forced to withdraw the law, argued that the government's flip-flop did not mean Paris could not pass needed but unpopular changes.

''I don't think the French refuse reforms,'' he told Europe 1 radio. ''The French accept change but always want to be assured that it is fair. They found these proposals unfair.'' But Sarkozy admitted there was little leeway for change in the twilight of Jacques Chirac's 12-year presidency: ''You don't reform the same way at the end of an administration as you do at the beginning.''

The business daily La Tribune disagreed, saying that the CPE and Villepin's pride were not the only victims of the unrest. ''Alas, the hope for reform has been buried with them,'' it wrote. ''No important reform can be undertaken in the 12 months ahead of us until the 2007 presidential election. And nothing says it will be easier after that.'' Another business daily, Les Echos, said: ''The politicians have no real margin for error anymore. After so many years of failure on the jobs front, they're not far from collectively losing all of their credit.''

BATTLE CONTINUES

Today's nationwide rallies will be the first test of sentiment after Chirac said yesterday the CPE would be replaced by measures to help disadvantaged young people find work.

His statement carefully avoided the words ''withdrawal'' or ''repeal'' to spare the blushes of the CPE's main champion, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, but some of its opponents hinted the battle was not yet over.

CGT union leader Bernard Thibault said he wanted to focus on the CNE job contract which, like the CPE, allows employers to hire and fire at will during a two-year trial period. The CNE applies to small firms, while the CPE covered workers under 26.

The crisis has shredded Villepin's authority, all but killed off his undeclared presidential ambitions, temporarily united the fractious leftwing opposition and split the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), now fearful of elections next year.

In a front page editorial, La Croix daily said that with presidential and parliamentary elections due in about one year there was little chance right and left would sit around a table to discuss how to cure youth unemployment of 22 per cent.

But some good could yet come of the crisis, the paper said, adding: ''These next 12 months could be useful if the CPE crisis ... forces each candidate (for the presidency) to make proposals on all the issues that have arisen in this debate.''

REUTERS

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