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French Leader Gets Political Crisis as Anniversary Gift


PARIS — He backed down to striking airline workers, then to teachers and parents and finally to fishermen, all in the pursuit of civil peace. But with a retreat in the face of angry students, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur on Tuesday backed into the deepest political crisis of his year in office.

Students took to the streets again Tuesday, blocking rush-hour traffic in some areas, to complain that Balladur's decision to suspend a controversial youth employment law doesn't go far enough.

But, at the same time, the 64-year-old conservative prime minister woke up Tuesday--the anniversary of his first year in office--to headlines criticizing his "vanishing trick" and "about turn." And he canceled, for the second time, a televised address to the nation marking the year.

Even the pro-government Le Figaro newspaper, in an editorial, admitted that the government "has sometimes appeared to be limping from one setback to another" in recent weeks. And the right-wing Le Quotidien opined, "What the public will remember about this crisis is the Balladur government's surrender to the street."

The political crisis facing Balladur, who was riding high in opinion polls only weeks ago, reflects deep unhappiness in France over the continuing high rate of unemployment, now 12.2%. But it also suggests strong resistance to Balladur's solutions for solving the crisis.

Constricted by France's labor laws, and trying to avoid spring riots, he has offered up an unusual variety of measures to spur employment--from lowering the minimum wage for youth to paying women a monthly stipend if they have a second child and quit their jobs.

Balladur and aides have insisted that what are being seen as retreats by some in France are attempts to find compromise solutions. After meeting with student leaders Monday, Balladur promised to suspend for one week the law cutting the legal minimum wage for youth. He said it would give his government time to find alternatives.

But the students, sensing victory, haven't called off their 3-week-old protests, which brought about 200,000 into the streets of Paris and other cities Friday. In the capital, the demonstrations ended in violence, with dozens injured and arrested.

On Tuesday, students blocked rail traffic into northern Paris during the morning rush hour and southbound traffic on the Left Bank in the afternoon, causing huge traffic jams. About 100 commuter and long-distance trains were stopped, forcing the state railway company to run buses for stranded passengers.

Several hundred students seized control of two highway tollbooths near Lyons, 300 miles south of Paris, and let motorists pass without charge. Students also occupied a suburban train station outside Paris, causing a backlog that forced passengers to disembark on the tracks.

Student leaders contend that the lower minimum wage, accompanied by provisions for on-the-job training, will not result in more jobs, as the government promises. And, on Tuesday, a Louis Harris poll of company chairmen and personnel directors indicated that 89% think Balladur's measures to increase hiring are inadequate.

Despite his difficulties, Balladur remains strong politically, analysts say. In the final round of local elections Sunday, his center-right coalition retained control of 75 of France's 95 departments. But Socialists, driven from power in elections a year ago, have delighted in Balladur's difficulties; they made a stronger-than-expected showing in the elections.

Balladur, considered the front-runner to replace retiring Francois Mitterrand in presidential elections next year, has been hit hard at the polls. He had been doing well after what was viewed here as a French victory in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations and progress on his program to privatize state-run industries.

But his approval ratings have fallen 12 points in some polls, to below 50%, in the past month. One poll published Tuesday indicated that 61% of French people think he should change his economic policies.

The minimum wage proposal is aimed at cutting the youth jobless rate, which is 23%. It would let companies pay youths with two years' higher education or less only 80% of the $1,000 monthly minimum wage.

The government had vowed never to back down from the law. But it now is trying to ease the political cost and appease students by considering the creation of a special agency to find jobs for young people.

Bob Injey, a student union leader, rejected that proposal, saying the government is "basically trying to justify lower pay for young people."

Thierry Mandon, the opposition Socialist Party's spokesman on social policy, said the government is trying "to replace a stupid wage law . . . with a jackass project."

A full Balladur retreat on the minimum wage would be the latest in a series of bows to popular pressure. He killed a cost-cutting plan for beleaguered Air France in September, when airline workers went on strike. Then, earlier this year, he withdrew his plan to increase funding for private schools after a massive street protest in Paris. And he promised new government aid for fishermen, who had rampaged over falling prices.

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