De Villepin suffers poll backlash over jobs reform

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The Independent Online

The French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, whose popularity has crashed in recent days, faces a noisy public challenge on the streets of France this afternoon.

Up to 500,000 school and university students and workers - mostly from the public sector - are expected to march against M. de Villepin's plans to make it easier to hire, and fire, young workers.

The demonstrations mark the collapse of M. de Villepin's initially successful attempts to position himself as a consensual prime minister, capable of holding the centre-ground of French politics.

His opinion poll ratings have plummeted so fast in the past two weeks that they have even alarmed his great rival on the centre-right, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. By giving a rallying point to the scattered and quarrelsome French left, M. Sarkozy fears that M. de Villepin's unpopularity could open the door to a left-wing victory in the national elections next spring.

Otherwise, the fact that M. de Villepin has succumbed to the seeming curse on all French prime ministers, is good news for M. Sarkozy. The Interior Minister now stands, more than ever, as the person most likely to succeed President Jacques Chirac as the main centre-right candidate in the presidential election in April and May next year.

M. de Villepin, 52, is a poet, career bureaucrat and protégé of M. Chirac who has never stood for election. He was appointed prime minister by M. Chirac after French voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution last May.

He has attempted to appease the nationalist and anti-market mood of the electorate by presenting himself as an "economic patriot" and defender of the "French model" of generous, social protections and welfare.

At the same time, he has pushed ahead with plans to make it easier to hire and fire workers in an attempt to reduce the country's stubbornly high level of unemployment, which stands at just less than 10 per cent. His proposed contrat première embauche (first job contract) would make it easier to hire young people up to the age of 26, but also allow employers to fire them for no reason after two years.

The plan - which M. de Villepin has forced through parliament with seldom-used "guillotine" rules - has provoked a storm of anger on the left and among young people.

The first job contract plan is meant to help unemployed young people find jobs - and relieve the kind of tensions which led to riots across France last November. But the move has been rejected by most high school and university students as an attempt to reduce young people to the rank of second-class citizens.

M. de Villepin's initial burst of popularity has also been eroded by the humiliating saga of the asbestos-riddled, former aircraft carrier Clemenceau.

The ship sailed to India for scrapping but was ordered to return when the French government's official watchdog declared that its export was illegal.

In a batch of recent opinion polls - including an LH2 poll in Libération yesterday - M. de Villepin's approval rating has plunged by seven points to about 36 per cent. As a member of the De Villepin government, M. Sarkozy's popularity has also fallen sharply, but he remains in the mid-40 per cent band.

The sharp fall in M. de Villepin's ratings is, however, a threat and a warning to M. Sarkozy. The Interior Minister rejects what he calls the "failed policies of the past 30 years" and plans to run for president with a programme of radical, market-opening reform.

The anger provoked by M. de Villepin's relatively modest job market changes - however clumsily presented - suggests that a large part of the French electorate remains viscerally opposed to change in the social protection system.

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