Chirac bows to rioters and scraps reform

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The Independent Online

Students and trade unions claimed victory yesterday after the French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin hastily buried the jobs reform that was to have been the centre-piece of the campaign against youth unemployment.

After a month of strikes, sit-ins and sometimes violent street protests, the government decided that social peace was the better part of valour and scrapped the First Employment Contract (CPE) as summarily as it had dreamed it up.

In a brief statement from the Elysée palace, M. Chirac announced "he had decided to replace Article 8 of the equal opportunities bill with a measure to support access by underprivileged young people to the jobs market".

Gone, in other words, are the radical new flexi-contracts that let employers dismiss under 26-year-olds without explanation in a two-year trial period. Gone too the CPE's key idea that a cut in job protection means an increase in job creation.

And, in its place, another classic French concoction of aid programmes and government money. At a cost of £100m for this year and twice that for 2007, existing public-sector youth jobs schemes will be boosted, and private employers subsidised to take on youngsters from "special zones".

Shortly after M. Chirac's announcement, a weary M. de Villepin appeared on radio and television to read out the death rites for his cherished creation.

"For several weeks, our country has passed through a period of agitation. Disorder in universities and high schools threatens the organisation of end-of-year exams. Street demonstrations endanger the safety of young people. All this makes imperative a rapid exit from the crisis," he said.

Giving no sign he takes personal blame for the fiasco - still less that he intends resigning - the Prime Minister said he had wanted to "act quickly" in introducing the CPE "because that was what the dramatic situation and the despair of the young demanded ... If this was not understood by everyone, then I regret it.

"Our responsibility is to prepare the future of our country. I very much hope we can all come together to move forward," he said.

Though the word "repeal" was tactfully avoided, trade unions, student organisations and left-wing parties had no difficulty in recognising the government's climbdown as a rout. "This is a historic victory that follows a historic attack on French youth," said Karl Stoeckel of the National Union of Lycée Students (UNL).

The Socialist Party's presidential hopeful, Jack Lang, said it was "time to draw a veil over this ridiculous farce ... I wish to salute the combativity, wisdom and maturity of our young people who have given a lesson in responsibility to the rabble-rousers in government."

Several universities remained blockaded yesterday as some die-hards vowed to continue the struggle until M. de Villepin withdraws the whole of his equal opportunities law - a series of measures drafted after last November's riots in the high-immigration suburbs of which the CPE was just one part.

However, without the support of the union movement - and with the Easter holidays approaching - protests can be expected to peter out, thus bringing to an end one of the most unedifying moments in recent French political history.

The clear losers are M. Chirac and M. de Villepin, especially the Prime Minister because, unlike M. Chirac, he is - or was - a man with a future. But his Napoleonic willpower-and-action approach to politics has proved unpopular, ineffective and, above all, a sham.

The man who once wrote that "sacrifice is better than the compromise which discredits" has ended up making another shabby U-turn, just like all the elected politicians he so despises.