- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

PARIS — President Jacques Chirac yesterday scrapped a controversial part of a youth labor law that triggered massive protests and strikes, bowing to intense pressure from students and unions and dealing a blow to his loyal premier in a bid to end the crisis.

Unions celebrated what they called “a great victory,” and also were deciding whether to keep up the protests. The top two student unions, UNEF and FIDL, said they would press on with demonstrations today across France.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who devised the law, had faced down protesters for weeks, insisting that its most divisive provision — a so-called “first-job contract” — was necessary to reduce high unemployment rates among French youths by making it easier for companies to hire and fire young workers.

But acting on advice from Mr. de Villepin, his longtime protege, Mr. Chirac “decided to replace” the provision with one aimed at “youths in difficulty,” the president’s office said.

Top lawmakers from Mr. Chirac’s ruling conservative party presented a new plan to parliament yesterday.

A somber Mr. de Villepin, in a TV appearance, said his original legislation was designed to curb “despair of many youths” and strike a “better balance … between more flexibility for the employer and more security for workers.”

“This was not understood by everyone, I’m sorry to say,” he said.

The crisis has discredited Mr. Chirac and devastated Mr. de Villepin and his presidential ambitions — and thrown into question the government’s ability to push through painful reforms to help France compete in the global economy.

Students and other opponents had feared the previous measure would erode coveted job security — and some unions trumpeted the retreat by Mr. Chirac and his prime minister.

The labor law “is dead and buried,” said Jean-Claude Mailly of the Workers Force union. “The goal has been achieved.”

Alain Olive, secretary-general of the UNSA union, said, “After more than two weeks of intense mobilization, the 12 syndicated groups of workers, university and high school students have won a great victory.”

The new four-point plan sent to parliament would bolster existing job contracts, rather than enact new ones. The government would offer more state support for companies that hire young workers.

The “first-job contract” would have allowed employers to fire workers under age 26 at any time during a two-year trial period without giving a reason.

Mr. de Villepin drew up the labor legislation as part of his response to last fall’s rioting in France’s impoverished suburbs, where many immigrants and their French-born children live. The unemployment rate for youths under 26 is a staggering 22 percent nationwide, but soars to nearly 50 percent in some of those troubled areas.

The plan sparked weeks of protests and strikes that shut down dozens of universities, prompted clashes between youths and police, and tangled road, train and air travel.

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