French Protesters Set Strike Date
French Protesters Set Strike Date
By CRAIG R. SMITH
Published: March 20, 2006
PARIS, March 20 - French students and unions stepped up pressure on the government today, calling for more demonstrations culminating in strikes next week to fight a hotly contested new labor law that makes it easier for companies to fire young employees.
The protesters set March 28 as the fourth "day of action" since street rallies over the new job rules began Feb. 7.
"There was a consensus from the beginning," said Coralie Caron, head of a federation of high school students. "The 28th is going to be like a very large protest everywhere in France."
President Jacques Chirac repeated calls for dialogue between the government and opponents of the law, saying the new edict could be "improved."
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, meanwhile, met with business leaders, unemployed youths and students in an effort to find a way out of the impasse that threatens to cripple his political career. The business leaders warned against any rollback in the legislation, saying that could slow the revamping of the nation's labor markets for months, if not years.
But the government hinted at some room for negotiation.
"He is ready to go further than this," a spokesman for Mr. de Villepin said today. "If there are proposals from the unions, he is ready to study them."
The battle over an incremental change in the country's social contract is emblematic of the overwhelming challenge facing much of Western Europe as it tries to loosen rigid labor laws and trim costly entitlements that have built up in the decades since their hybrid capitalist-socialist economic systems emerged after World War II.
Governments recognize the need for fundamental change, particularly as their societies age and the burden of pensions and health care balloon. But few have the political will to force those changes on their societies.
So far, Mr. de Villepin has rebuffed calls to revoke the law. Yet he hasn't demonstrated the iron hand of Margaret Thatcher, who broke the control of British unions and pushed for a more flexible labor market in order to create a competitive Britain.
The French unions have refused to cooperate with Mr. de Villepin.
"For now, the unions reject the government's conditions for a dialogue," said a representative of the C.F.T.C., one of the country's union syndicates, adding that both the unions and the students are demanding that the new contract rules be suspended before talks with the government begin.
"Without this condition, we won't do anything," the union representative said.
Though French unions account for less than 10 percent of the country's work force, their concentration in the public sector, particularly in transportation, gives them the ability to wreak havoc on daily life, putting enormous pressure on the government.
Mr. de Villepin has made three proposals "within the framework of the law," according to his spokesman, who said that rescinding the law, as demanded by student and union leaders, is not really possible.
Those proposals, meant to soften the impact of the new contract rules, include designating a mentor for young employees hired under the new law, a six-month review to give those employees a sense of how they are doing, and free training if they are fired.
"We have to give the C.P.E, a chance," Mr. de Villepin said in an interview with the monthly student magazine, Citato, published today. He was referring to France's "first employment contract," known as C.P.E.
"Everybody knows it's impossible to continue with this model, but nobody in France has found a solution to respond to the problem," said Jean-Daniel Levy, a director at Paris-based polling company CSA. "What they've been able to do is define what they don't want, but they have trouble saying what it is they want."
The new law, passed by Parliament earlier this month, would allow companies to hire people under 26 for a two-year trial period, during which the young workers could easily be fired. It is intended to open up full-time jobs for people entering the work force.
Because of France's heavily regulated labor market, many companies now prefer to hire temporary workers rather than risk putting on the payroll inexperienced people they would not easily be able to lay off. As a result, unemployment among the youth is more than double the national average of about 10 percent. Joblessness is even higher among the second-generation immigrant youth who were behind widespread rioting last fall.
The standoff threatens to weaken Mr. de Villepin, a diplomat and poet, at a time when he wants to be consolidating power for next year's presidential elections, which he hopes to win. Already, his approval rating has plunged to the lowest level since he took over the job last May.
A survey last week by CSA found that two out of three French people are against the labor law.