Villepin stands firm on jobs law after rioting France riots

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The embattled French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, last night stood by a hotly contested youth employment programme, despite growing protests, plunging popularity ratings, and grumbling within his centre-right government.

A day after riot police used force to evacuate 300 demonstrating students from the Sorbonne University in Paris, M de Villepin appeared on the main evening news to defend the controversial First Employment Contract, a flexible new jobs contract for under 26 year-olds which opponents say will entrench job insecurity.

The new law was essential to fight youth unemployment, M de Villepin said. It would be applied, he said, though he promised to add new guarantees on salary-levels and access to housing, "The law that has been voted will be enforced. But, as provided for in the law, I want the guarantees which are included in it to complemented by new guarantees" that will be negotiated with unions and employers, the prime minister said.

In his toughest test since taking office last June, M de Villepin has faced demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of students and workers, a socialist opposition invigorated by a rare sense of common purpose, and rumbling resentment within the ruling Union for a Popular Movement about his style of government.

Polls show that after a long political honeymoon in which the public seemed to favour his sense of mission, there is now growing disenchantment. At the same time a clear majority of the population - up to 65 percent in some surveys and a higher proportion of young people - say the CPE should be withdrawn.

With more protests planned for this week, some commentators even suggested his future could be on the line. Having made the youth jobs programme a personal campaign, he would be in an untenable position if - say - his mentor President Jacques Chirac decided the political damage was too high and ordered him to row back.

Introduced into an equal opportunities bill that was drawn up in response to last November's riots, the CPE was meant to be a way of encouraging employers to take on young job-seekers - whose problems in finding employment is an increasingly urgent social problem. Some 23 percent of under 26 year-olds are unemployed, but the figure is more than 50 percent in the country's high-immigration suburbs.

Under the contract, which was approved by parliament last week and should come into effect next month, youngsters are taken on for an initial two years during which period they can be fired without explanation. Opponents say it is cut-price labour "a (grave) la Anglo-Saxon."

Protest brought hundreds of thousands of students and workers onto the streets on Tuesday, followed by occupations, strikes and sit-ins at more than half of France's 85 universities. The violent denouement of the Sorbonne occupation - with barricades in the corridors - brought immediate if exaggerated comparisons with May 1968.

Visiting the scene Education Minister Giles de Robien angrily accused protesters of vandalising university property. But Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Green party Euro-deputy who was a leader of the May 1968 uprising, said the reaction was excessive. "The government's going off the rails. Governments always make the same mistakes. When they resort to force they lose," he said.

As a sign of growing ferment inside the ruling party, yesterday's newspapers carried anonymous remarks from senior UMP members, criticising the prime minister - who has never stood in an election - for a haughty self-regard.

"He acts alone, with absolutely no consultation, even though he does not have the legitimacy of an election behind him," a deputy told Le Journal du Dimanche.

M de Villepin's rival for leadership of the centre-right, Interior Minister and UMP chief Nicolas Sarkozy, flew back early from a trip to the French Caribbean to handle the Sorbonne disturbances, but was keeping a discreet silence.

The row has come on top of a series of other difficulties for M de Villepin, including the bird flu scare, the embarrassing recall of the decommissioned aircraft-carrier the Clemenceau from India on environmental grounds, and a parliamentary debacle over attempts to regulate file-sharing by Internet.