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Fearing More Unrest, French Leader Weighs Weakening Law

by : CRAIG S. SMITH
Tuesday March 21, 2006 - 23:55
1 comment
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By CRAIG S. SMITH

Facing crippling strikes and growing civil unrest, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin today discussed with lawmakers watering down his contentious new labor law. But union leaders, who have refused to enter into a dialogue with the government until it has rescinded the law, showed no signs of budging on their promise to mount nationwide protests and strikes next week.

"The basic demand of the youth and of employees is that the law be withdrawn," said Gérard Aschieri, the leader of France’s largest teachers’ union syndicate, the Unitary Union Federation. "He has to respond to the people in the street."

While Mr. de Villepin has repeated his refusal to withdraw the law, legislators from his governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, said there was a growing consensus that it must be amended to make it more palatable to opponents. The prime minister himself suggested possible changes at meetings today with legislators from his party.

"The prime minister was very closed last week, but was more open to the idea of amending the law today," said Éric Woerth, a U.M.P. legislator who attended the meeting. "Almost everyone agrees that we must do something, not because of the mobilization of the unions, but because the battle of explaining the law has been lost with the young."

If the law is significantly weakened, it will serve a serious blow to the prime minister, who hopes to run for president next year. It will also mark another defeat in France’s long-running struggle to break the stranglehold of its rigid social-welfare system, which has kept economic growth sluggish and unemployment high for decades.

While there is no guarantee that the new law will create jobs, as the government claims, bowing to student and union pressure will effectively neuter the current administration’s ability to restructure the system.

France has a strong tradition of often violent demonstrations and paralyzing strikes that is largely tolerated by the broader population, which has a cultural mistrust of government dating back to the French Revolution even as it retains a deep sense of dependency on the state.

The resulting tendency to rebel against any attempt to curtail entitlements has cowed many administrations into backing down from bold policies that might have helped remake the system in the past.

But as one commentator wryly noted, the administrations often pay by losing subsequent elections anyway. Even Mr. Woerth seemed to sense the dilemma. "It won’t be a glorious exit," he said.

Many people in France are already predicting Mr. de Villepin’s political demise as a result of the crisis. He has come under intense criticism both from opponents and from within his own party for pushing the law forward without first campaigning for it among the unions and students it most affects.

The prime minister’s chief rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, by contrast, ushered in a sensitive immigration law last year by lobbying potential critics before submitting it to Parliament.

Angered at not being consulted this time, and sensing the government’s weakness, the students and unions are now taking a hard line.

Tens of thousands of students marched in major French cities today, with some violence breaking out in Paris where a group baseball-wielding youths smashed the windows and rear-view mirrors of cars along a street behind the Sorbonne. Hotel workers on the street, rue Gay-Lussac, said fights also broke out between groups of students.

Meanwhile, a witness told Agence France-Presse that he had seen national riot police beat a man unconscious during a melee at Place de la Nation Saturday night. The 39-year-old postal worker and union member, Cyril Ferez, briefly regained consciousness before lapsing into a coma, the news agency reported. He remained in a coma today.

The witness, a Belgian photographer named Bruno Stevens told the agency that he saw about a dozen officers chasing Mr. Ferez before catching him and "beating him without restraint with clubs." Video images recorded by a teacher named Alain Bessaha show a policeman’s club raised amid the melee, the agency also reported, and later Mr. Ferez on the ground.

The possibility of such serious injury or the death of a protester at the hands of France’s notoriously tough riot police is what the government fears most. Such incidents have fueled protest movements and helped end political careers in the past.

Hoping to defuse the situation, Mr. de Villepin has opened the possibility of amending the new law, which gives companies the right to hire employees 25 years old or younger for a two-year trial period, during which they can be fired without cause. Mr. de Villepin had hoped the law would lead to more hiring, helping to trim the 22 percent unemployment rate among people in that age group.

Now he is discussing shortening the trial period to one year and requiring companies to explain to young employees why they lost their jobs, though without giving them legal recourse.

Unions and other interest groups "have the complete freedom to reduce this period in those sectors where it would be most relevant," Mr. de Villepin told his party legislators at a second meeting with them late today.

But it is not clear that even those changes would satisfy opponents.

"Even one year is still excessive," said the union leader, Mr. Aschieri. "In most employment contracts, trial periods are from one to six months."

In any case, the changes would effectively gut the law, making the "first employment contract" - or C.P.E. - it defines little different from other short-term employment contracts already in effect and thus removing any incentive it might hold for employers.

"The problem is that it will kill the C.P.E.," said Mr. Woerth, using the French acronym for the contract. "The more we modify the law, the less attractive it is for companies."

Ariane Bernard and Maia de la Baume contributed reporting for this article from Paris.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/21/i...

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> Fearing More Unrest, French Leader Weighs Weakening Law
Monday April 3 - 17:08 - Posted by 316b0588be1601b7...

The idea that the French ’rigid welfare’ system produces ’high unemployment’ is outright propaganda. In Britian, which has become a bosses paradise, with flexible, dehumaised labour and attacks on civil liberties, the real rate of unemployment is much higher, and 47% of workers have wages which on their own are insufficient to avoid poverty. Our corporate sponsored government counts as employed anyone working more than a couple of hours a week for poverty pay.

According to the UK’s own labour force survey the number of people in poverty has increased from 22%, compared to 13% in 1979, and the bottom 10% of jobs pay less now than they did in 1970. For the majority of Britain’s population ’market reforms’ have produced nothing but misery.

The French people should fight back, and fight back hard, before the same Thatcherite policies are imposed on them by a handful of free market ideologues. Lets cut back on the real drain on resources - corporate welfare and military spending.







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