Villepin: Job Law Can Be 'Improved'

By Sophie Louet
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

POISSY, France, March 21 -- Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told jobless people Tuesday he was ready to improve his contested youth employment law, but he refused to give in to street protests demanding its withdrawal.

Battered in the polls and facing a stern test of his ambition to run for president next year, Villepin repeated his call for unions and employers to work with him on how best to implement the measure.

"The law is well put together," he said during a meeting with young unemployed people in Poissy, west of Paris. "The issue is understanding which points can be improved. It's not very complicated, it's a matter of getting around the table" to negotiate, he said.

Gently prodded by his mentor, President Jacques Chirac, Villepin has redoubled efforts to talk to students, employers and the unemployed since hundreds of thousands opposed to his "first job contract" law took to the streets Saturday.

On Tuesday, several thousand students and high school pupils marched to demand withdrawal of the law, which allows employers to fire people under 26 without reason during a two-year trial period. "This law will take us back a whole century in terms of social rights," said Fabien Duquosne, 19, a university student who joined Tuesday's protest.

Under France's tough job security laws, the government says, employers are often reluctant to hire young people, out of fear of having to keep them on the payroll for a lifetime even if they're not needed or prove unsuited to the job. The new law, scheduled to go into effect next month, would generate employment by removing those concerns, proponents say.

Unions have called a one-day work stoppage for next Tuesday.

The protests have been largely peaceful. But one union member remained in a coma in a Paris hospital on Tuesday from injuries suffered during violence that followed Saturday's demonstration.

Lawmakers from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement earlier met Villepin to discuss how to end a crisis some fear could cost the party victory in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007.

Ministers have floated a reduction of the trial period to 12 months and rules ensuring that employers explain to young people why they have been fired. "The prime minister confirmed there are no taboo questions," Guy Geoffroy said after he and other ruling party legislators had met with Villepin.

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