- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

PARIS — A day after fresh demonstrations against a youth job law swept across France, Le Parisien newspaper offered a blunt, front-page headline: “What’s de Villepin Good For?” That question is being raised increasingly by politicians and pundits, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of ordinary French who poured into the streets Tuesday in the fifth national protest of the unpopular legislation.

Aimed to boost youth employment in France by also making it easier to fire young workers, the law has unleashed widespread fury and appears to have sunk the political prospects of its No. 1 champion, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Not so long ago, Mr. de Villepin, 52, was a leading hopeful in the presidential election next year. Now he is battling plummeting polls and a growing rebellion within his center-right Union for a Popular Movement party.

A survey published yesterday in France’s L’Express magazine placed the prime minister’s popularity at a dismal 28 percent — a 20 point drop in just two months.

That placed Mr. de Villepin, a former foreign minister best remembered in the United States as the face of French opposition to the Iraq war — among lowest of any prime minister since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The poll found that 45 percent of French wanted him to resign.

Mr. de Villepin ruled out that option yesterday. “The president of the republic gave me a mission,” he declared at a press conference. “I will lead this battle to the end.”

Some analysts think that end is near.

“This movement appears to put an end to whatever ambitions Dominique de Villepin may have harbored for the presidential elections,” said analyst Henri Rey of the Center for the Study of French Politics in Paris.

Mr. de Villepin is not the only politician paying a price. President Jacques Chirac, already considered a political dinosaur, was hurt by a television appearance last week in which he confused the public by supporting the law while calling for modifications.

Now, Mr. de Villepin has been all but sidelined as Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy presides over emergency talks on the law with labor unions and lawmakers from the governing Union for a Popular Movement party.

The issue appears to have been a political gift for Mr. Sarkozy, 51, a popular, hands-on politician who has made no secret of his own presidential ambitions.

“Sarkozy is certainly in a stronger and more advantageous position than the prime minister,” Mr. Rey said. “But whether that will last is also uncertain. It depends on how the negotiations go.”

For many of the street protesters, the bad taste created by the job law will apply to any member of the governing party.

“If Sarkozy becomes president next year, I’m leaving the country,” said Stephane Radodcic, a 52-year-old businessman and father who joined the march Tuesday. “This government has failed young people.”

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