Government pressured to nix law that some fear will make jobs vulnerable
PARIS - Protesters and police geared up for mass demonstrations across France on Saturday as pressure mounted on the conservative government to cancel a new law that students and unions fear will undermine job security.
Trade unions and left-wing parties will join students in the demonstrations, bringing numbers, organizational talent and leading opposition figures to a movement that has created a serious crisis for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.
After a Paris student protest ended in violence on Thursday, police urged shopkeepers along the march route there to shut down and tagged parked cars with warnings. They also collected any debris that protesters could throw at riot police.
The demonstrations, which organizers hope will bring out more than a million people nationwide, were to begin mostly in the early afternoon. Several thousand rallied at an early march in the southwestern city of Toulouse.
“I think lots of people will be out there today,” said teachers’ union leader Gerard Aschieri. “This is a stage in a movement that is growing and that no politician can ignore.”
The First Job Contract (CPE), which Villepin rammed through parliament without debate, aims to fight youth unemployment by easing job protection for workers under 26, a step meant to spur hiring among bosses wary of taking on new staff.
Critics reject this as a “Kleenex contract” because young workers could be fired without explanation -- “thrown away like a paper tissue,” they say -- during their first two years. They demand full job protection after a short trial period.
French trade unions usually defend only their members, who are protected by strong labor laws, but have hooked up with the students now out of fear that the new contract could be the first step toward undermining their more privileged status.
The powerful pro-Communist CGT union upped the ante going into the day of protest, which union leaders plan to cap with a meeting after the march to discuss future strategy.
“If they don’t listen to us we are going to have to think about moving to a general strike across the whole country,” said CGT head Bernard Thibault.
No room to maneuver
Unemployment is the top political issue in France, where the national average is 9.6 percent and youth joblessness is double that. The rate rises to 50 percent in some of the poor suburbs hit by several weeks of youth rioting last autumn.
Widely criticized for sparking the protests with his surprise CPE contract, Villepin has vowed to stay the course, aware that giving in could ruin his hopes to run for president next year, as earlier prime ministers learned to their chagrin.
In a bid to defuse the crisis, President Jacques Chirac said on Friday the government was “ready for dialogue” on the law that critics say must be withdrawn before any talks can start.
But it was hard to see how the government has much room for maneuver without making major concessions. An opinion poll published on Friday showed 68 percent of French people oppose the law, a rise of 13 percentage points in a week.
The crisis has left Villepin exposed politically. His main rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, has stood back discreetly as the prime minister’s troubles mount.
His only consolation is that the opposition Socialists are so split that they hardly seem able to profit from the crisis.
University chancellors met Villepin on Friday evening and urged him to suspend the law and launch negotiations.
“We told him that things are getting worse and that next week could prove very risky,” said Yannick Vallee, vice president of the association of university presidents.