Miércoles 22 de Marzo de 2006, Ip nº 145

Opponents of New French Labor Law Step Up Protests
Por CRAIG S. SMITH

French students and unions stepped up pressure on the government on Monday, calling for a day of demonstrations and strikes on March 28 to fight a hotly contested new labor law that makes it easier for companies to fire young employees.

Students also planned to march in Paris again on Tuesday, continuing the protests that began Feb. 7 and have grown into a national movement, tipping the embattled government into crisis.

President Jacques Chirac repeated calls for dialogue between the government and opponents of the law, which he said could be "improved," while Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin met with business leaders, unemployed youths and students in an effort to find a way out of the impasse that threatens his political career.

"He is ready to go further than this," a spokesman for Mr. de Villepin said Monday, hinting that there was room for negotiation. "If there are proposals from the unions, he is ready to study them."

The battle over what amounts to an incremental change in the country's social contract is emblematic of the overwhelming challenge facing many Western European nations as they try to loosen rigid labor laws and trim costly benefits that have built up in the social-welfare systems that 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.

"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 Lévy, a director at C.S.A., a polling company based in Paris. Part of the problem is that the French are wary of the more market-driven systems in the United States and Britain, which they consider heartless. "What they've been able to do is define what they don't want, but they have trouble saying what it is they want," Mr. Lévy said.

One of the most pressing problems is youth unemployment, currently more than double the national average of 10 percent, which the new law is intended to address. But because of France's strong job security laws, many companies prefer to hire temporary workers rather than full-time employees who would be extremely hard to lay off, even if they do not work out.

The new law, passed by Parliament this month but not yet in effect, would allow companies to hire people under 26 for a two-year trial period, during which they could easily be fired. It is intended to open up full-time jobs for people entering the work force.

But Roland Cayrol, research director at the National Foundation of Political Sciences, said the situation was complicated because the French were worn out by a quarter-century of change meant to address chronic high unemployment.

"People voted right, they voted left, they voted for a coalition, they lived through nationalization and then privatization, all with the promise that it would bring down unemployment," he said. "Now their first reaction to any change is, 'We don't believe you.' "

So far, Mr. de Villepin has rebuffed calls to cancel the law. But he is no Margaret Thatcher, who broke the power of British unions and pushed for a more flexible labor market a generation ago.

Though French unions account for less than 10 percent of the 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.

The unions have refused to talk with Mr. de Villepin, though they have stopped short of calling for a paralyzing general strike. "For now, the unions reject the government's conditions for a dialogue," said a representative of the French Confederation of Christian Workers, one of the country's five major union syndicates. He said the unions were demanding that the new contract rules be suspended before talks with the government begin. "Without this condition, we won't do anything," he said.

Mr. Villepin has made three proposals meant to soften the impact of the new contract rules "within the framework of the law," according to his spokesman, who said suspending the law was not really possible.

The proposals 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.

The standoff threatens to weaken Mr. de Villepin, a diplomat and poet, at a time when he wants to be consolidating power to make a run in the presidential campaign next year. Already, his approval rating has plunged to its lowest since he took office last May.

A survey last week by C.S.A., the polling company, found that two out of three French people are against the first employment contract, known by its French initials, C.P.E.


  21/03/2006. The New York Times.


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