Paris: Only 24, but student may decide jobs crisis

More strikes and protests are scheduled today despite President Jacques Chirac all but dumping the controversial law which would make it easier to hire and fire young people.

A radical and criminal fringe - far-left activists, anarchists and youth gangs from poor suburbs - is expected again to seek violent confrontation with riot police when a large march ends in Paris tonight.

But there are signs that the government and moderate trades union and student leaders are preparing to negotiate an end to the four-week-old crisis. If so, the future of France may lie with Bruno Julliard, a young man largely unknown a month ago but now tipped for a glittering, political career on the French left.

M. Julliard, 24, president of the largest French student group, the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France, has been a key figure in the escalation of the initially muddled opposition to the youth contract into a full-blown national crisis. His judgement on when students have won sufficient concessions will be pivotal.

M. Julliard, a graduate law student from Lyons, was phoned at the weekend by Nicolas Sarkozy, the number two in the centre-right French government and a likely candidate for the presidency next year.

In a clear sign that President Chirac and the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, are ready to throw in the towel, M. Sarkozy - their hated rival - has been placed in charge of negotiations with students and trades unions. M. Sarkozy, theInterior Minister and president of the main centre-right party, the UMP, has made clear he is prepared to abandon, not just amend, the hated Contrat Première Embauche (CPE).

In a nationwide television address on Friday, M. Chirac said he would sign the new law but immediately place it in abeyance. He ordered the government to prepare a new law, changing the two most controversial aspects of the CPE. A two-year "trial period" for recruits under 26 would be reduced to one year, during which time employers would no longer be able to fire young people without explanation.

Trades union and student leaders, including M. Julliard, initially dismissed M. Chirac's concessions as "bizarre" and inadequate. In the past two days they have switched tactics, offering to help frame a different employment law. M. Julliard said such discussions were "very probable".

Daniel Cohn-Bendit will be forever the face of the French student revolt of May 1968. Bruno Julliard will probably go down as the face of the "events of March 2006".

Critics say M. Julliard is a pure product of the centre- left, mainstream, "statist" establishment in France. He is the son of a Socialist mayor and the stepson of a Communist-leaning senior civil servant. He is accused by extremists of being a "bourgeois careerist" and by moderates of being a stooge for the anti-market left wing of the main French opposition party, the Parti Socialiste.

The differences between M. Julliard and M. Cohn-Bendit sum up the differences between the two "revolts". Cohn-Bendit, was a classic outsider, who wanted to change everything, an impish, ill-dressed, anarchic figure with a shock of red hair and a funny and provocative turn of phrase.

Bruno Julliard is smartly dressed, and talks the language of mainstream politics. He is fighting a defensive battle to save France's strong, employment protections for the new generation.

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