'Sacred' contract under threat

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THE ISSUE behind France's student unrest is the Contrat d'Insertion Professionnelle (CIP), literally the 'Professional Insertion Contract', which permits employers to offer under-26-year-olds 3,790 francs ( pounds 439) a month, or 80 per cent of the Smic, the minimum legal wage.

The Smic (Salaire Minimum Interprofessionnel de Croissance or Minimum Interprofessional Growth Salary), was made law in 1970 when Georges Pompidou was President. Indexed to inflation, it is the lowest salary any employer can pay.

Although there were other measures effectively undercutting the Smic to give employment to the young introduced in the 1980s by the Socialist government, the Smic is a sacred cow in social legislation.

The 12-month-old conservative government, which provided for the CIP in labour legislation last year, argues that it will help to reduce France's 23 per cent unemployment rate among the young by encouraging employers to give youth an all-important first step on the employment ladder.

The mainly left-wing unions and student bodies, however, have dubbed it the Smic-Jeunes, the Youngsters' Smic, and claim it turns the young into cheap labour.

Since Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, confirmed at the beginning of March that the CIP would be introduced, the government has fine-tuned its interpretation of the measure, first saying it would not apply to people with more than two years of higher education, then that the 20 per cent reduction in pay allowed for one-fifth of the working week spent in training.