- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

Once again the French have taken to the streets in protest of a controversial law meant to encourage employers to hire young people without suffering heavy social taxes. And once again Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s political future becomes less certain with his chances — and his dreams — of reaching the Elysee Palace fading along with the smoke from every tear gas grenade.

The First Employment Contract, or CPE, has mobilized the left-wing parties, student unions and often, even the parents and grandparents of those students standing steadfast against the law and the prime minister.

More than a million people have taken to the streets, protesting the law at various times.

The protests spilled into the Parliament as French lawmakers argued over who was running the country. “Who is governing France today?” asked Jean-Marc Ayrault, a socialist lawmaker. Prime Minister de Villepin shot back that the country’s institutions were working very much as they should. “Everyone is playing his proper part,” said Mr. de Villepin.

France’s young people are angered by the law they say treats them like “Kleenex tissues,” to be used once and then disposed. The CPE allows employers to dismiss employees under the age of 26 during the first two years of employment without having to justify their action.

The country’s youth say it will make them “disposable.” The employers and the government argue scrapping the law will reduce employment opportunities. Certainly, the under 26 will have the same rights as anyone one else without the CPE, admits the government. But, they add, without the CPE of course, the young will not be able to get axed so easily because there will be no jobs for them to be hired/fired from.

Many business and political leaders accuse the government of not having properly thought out the law, along with the consequences it would have. Mr. de Villepin had hoped the law would help solve the chronic 26 percent unemployment among French youth, but Laurence Parisot, head of MEDEF, France’s country’s largest employer federation accused the government of trying to solve its problems on the backs of the young.

Back on the streets tens of thousands of police and gendarme deployed in major French cities to prevent the planned demonstrations turning violent.

Typically, dozens of agitators hang onto the fringes of the demonstrators from where they attack other protesters, stealing purses, cell phones and electronic agendas. Others attack passersby or peaceful demonstrators, break shop windows and generally create havoc for its own sake and to give the demonstrators a bad name. The French call them “Les Casseurs,” or those who break.

“What remains of Dominique de Villepin?” asked the conservative Le Figaro. Indeed, for Mr. de Villepin, the man who was never elected to any position, now hopes Matignon, the prime minister’s office on the Rue de Varenne, will help him get elected to the Elysee Palace and into the top job in the country: the presidency. But these last few weeks have been more than testing for the prime minister.

For the moment the government is holding steady, not wishing to be seen as capitulating to the demands of the street protesters, although Mr. de Villepin has already said he is willing to discuss changing the existing CPE into a CPE lite, as the French call diet (lite) colas.

Now France’s prime minister — and French President Jacques Chirac’s personal protege — the man Mr. Chirac would like to see replace him as president is starting to have doubts as he faces the “toughest days of his life,” says the BBC. The decisions taken by Mr. de Villepin over the next several days may well shape his political future and that of France.

If the prime minister refuses to back down, the protest will continue with students and their parents, supported by trade unionists — the biggest such demonstrations since the famous May 1968 protests that shook France like a devastating earthquake, forever changing the nation’s face.

The same could happen once again, but with summer break now only about two months away, the government knows only too well that the students as well as their parents and grandparents will want to head off for their traditional four weeks summer holiday. The government counts on this sacrosanct tradition to bring life in France back to normal.

On the other hand, the students may decide to pursue their strike, thus surprising the government and putting Paris on track for a long hot summer.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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