Students turn on the heat as France votes

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The Independent Online
French students maintained their campaign against plans to lower the minimum legal wage for the young, but local elections yesterday underlined public confidence in the conservative coalition led by Edouard Balladur.

After two weeks of demonstrations against a proposed law allowing employers to pay people under the age of 26 only 80 per cent of the minimum wage (Smic), voters in the provinces chose new departmental councils in half of France's cantons.

The first round of voting last week gave the ruling conservative parties, Mr Balladur's Gaullist RPR and the centre- right Union for French Democracy (UDF) nearly 45 per cent of the vote, the same score as the one which gave the right a massive victory in parliamentary elections a year ago.

In a televised address as the early results were announced in the second and final round, Mr Balladur promised a dialogue with the young to explain his policies. Few surprises emerged from the voting, after which a few departments were expected to go to the right.

In Marseilles, Bernard Tapie, the controversial businessman turned politician, won the fifth canton with a healthy 70 per cent over a candidate from the far right National Front. He had said earlier the result would determine whether he would run for mayor of the city in municipal elections next year.

In the Var department, Maurice Arreckx, the council leader and an UDF senator, was beaten by the National Front in his Toulon canton. His defeat plainly resulted from the assassination in February of Yann Piat, an UDF deputy in the National Assembly, who listed Mr Arreckx among her opponents in a letter addressed to the Toulon prosecutor.

The paradox was that, while the bulk of the electorate still apparently supported Mr Balladur, currently the best- placed politician to succeed Francois Mitterrand as President in the presidential elections in 14 months, youthful militancy from a generation whose unemployment rate is 23 per cent, double the national average, has presented him with his most serious crisis so far.

Mr Balladur said last night that fighting youth unemployment was a government priority. Last Thursday, 210,000 youngsters demonstrated in towns across France. In Paris, where 30,000 of them marched through the centre of the city, the protest ended in violence.

The spectacle, with youths facing lines of riot police, has evoked inevitable comparisons with May 1968 when student riots paralysed France, although the scale and issues are different. Over the weekend, student leaders called another protest for Paris this Thursday.

Since the proposal to cut the minimum wage (a measure the government says will encourage employers to take on more young people while the students say it devalues their work) does not affect youngsters with more than two years of higher education, protests have so far not attracted many students in the universities who are on three-year courses.

However, student unions have called a strike in the universities for Thursday, a move which should encourage their students to join the Paris demonstration.