Leading article: The French disease

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Considering how many leaders it has - a President, a Prime Minister and a man who thinks that he should be both - the fin de régime French administration is miserably short of leadership. The fact that M. Chirac and, the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, are driven by a burning hatred of the "third man", the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, goes some way to explain the impasse over M. de Villepin's jobs law for the young. If M. de Villepin gives way, his chances of beating M. Sarkozy to the centre-right "nomination" for the presidency next spring will be zero.

The contrat première embauche seems a modest enough affair. In an attempt to reduce the 23 per cent youth unemployment in France, M. de Villepin's law would allow companies to hire people under 26 on a two-year trial period. During that time, they could be fired without explanation (but with compensation). The law is no cure-all. Nor is it the wicked, ultra-capitalist attack on the French way of life portrayed by the unions and the students who have closed universities and lycées across France.

The intensity of the protests is partly explained by union opposition to any change in the privileges of the employed in France (and tough luck to the jobless). It is also explained by the pessimistic, inward-looking, anti-capitalist mood of many French young people (who are victims of the system they are fighting to defend). The youths who burned cars in Paris on Thursday were reminders of a related and unresolved crisis: the social and racial exclusion which brought riots to France's poor multiracial suburbs in the autumn.

To avoid one crisis reigniting another - with explosive consequences - France needs decisive action. This probably means decisive inaction: a decision by M. de Villepin to shelve his poorly framed and badly sold jobs law to save the wider case for economic and social reform.

To do so would need an act of statesmanship by M. Chirac and an act of self-sacrifice by M. de Villepin. The breakdown of the Prime Minister's talks with the unions yesterday suggests that France will get neither.

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