Protesters reject Chirac's jobs plan

In a televised address to the nation on Friday night, M. Chirac said he would ratify the "first job contract", designed to ease youth unemployment by allowing employers to sack young recruits without explanation during a two-year "trial period", but would make the government pass a new law removing most of its meaning.

His contorted response to a four-week political and social crisis was dismissed yesterday by students and trade union leaders, as well as most of the French press, as an "April Fool's joke", a "confidence trick" and a "piece of failed DIY".

Around 2,000 young people - some students, but many more far-left and anarchist activists - went on a six-hour protest ramble through the streets of central Paris after M. Chirac's speech. During the chaotic march, which ended in the early hours of yesterday morning, the demonstrators threw bottles at riot police and attempted briefly to storm the National Assembly. Violent fringe groups smashed the windows of two McDonald's outlets and sacked the offices of Pierre Lellouche, a Paris deputy for M. Chirac's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

This wild protest, and similar incidents in provincial cities, will deepen worries that a new day of nationwide strikes and marches planned for Tuesday may once again be invaded by a violent minority of far-left activists and youth gangs from poor suburbs.

Even though President Chirac conceded ground on the two most contentious parts of the new youth contract, students and union leaders appeared determined yesterday to prolong the unrest. The dispute now threatens to lurch into a head-on confrontation between an enfeebled centre-right government and President and a jubilant and - for the time being united - French left.

The "contrat première embauche" (CPE, or first job contract) was intended to reduce France's youth unemployment rate of 23 per cent. It was rammed through parliament by the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, who had warned that he would resign - plunging the centre-right into crisis - if the President suspended or blocked the law.

M. Chirac said on Friday night that he would sign the law but, in effect, place it in abeyance. He would order the government immediately to prepare a new law, he went on, reducing the "trial period" to one year and obliging employers to explain their reasons for firing young workers.

Although this would make the CPE all but useless, student groups and unions are now determined to humiliate the right and, if possible, bring down M. de Villepin. In an interview for publication today, he admitted "mistakes" and expressed regret for "misunderstanding and incomprehension". He denied being disavowed by M. Chirac, who has appealed to unions and students to take part in a national conference to consider other ways of promoting youth employment. Most union and student leaders said yesterday that they would not participate in such talks until the CPE was abolished, not just eviscerated.

In other words, France faces a deepening political, social and educational crisis - with many universities and lycées blocked and exams looming - over a law that has all but ceased to exist. M. de Villepin called an emergency meeting of chieftains of the centre-right yesterday to plan the way forward. He faces an explosive battle in the National Assembly in the next few days to push through the new, weakened version of the youth contracts.

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