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Split Widens Over New French Labor Law

The government's inability to unite on the job security issue gives demonstrators hope that they will win major concessions.

April 05, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Students and labor unions staged another day of nationwide strikes and marches against a new labor law Tuesday amid signs they would win major concessions from an increasingly divided government.

There was a mood of impending triumph among marchers because of efforts by French President Jacques Chirac to end a two-month confrontation that has shut down schools and universities and raised fear of a return of last year's urban unrest.

"We are perhaps on the verge of a great victory," said Olivier Besancenot, a leader of the Communist Revolutionary Party.

More than a million people demonstrated across the nation, matching the turnout of a similar "day of action" last week, authorities said. The protests were generally peaceful, although police faced off with rock-throwing youths in the evening as marches ended in Paris and the western city of Rennes. Service at airports, train stations and other public facilities was disrupted by the strikes.

Although Chirac signed the much-disputed law Friday, he simultaneously relented to critics by holding up its implementation and proposing new legislation to soften its effect.

Chirac's complicated maneuver undercut his protege, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who had staked his reputation and ambitions for the presidency on the initiative to reduce youth unemployment by making it easier for businesses to hire and fire workers younger than 26.

It also allowed the prime minister's archrival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the center-right governing coalition, to take a lead role in brokering peace on the streets.

Leaders of the center-left parliamentary opposition berated De Villepin during a debate Tuesday in the National Assembly, declaring that the intraparty feud had reduced him to a figurehead.

"You don't govern anymore," legislator Jean-Marc Ayrault of the Socialist Party told De Villepin. "You retain the appearance of power, but you don't exercise it anymore. It's what is called a regime crisis with two prime ministers."

De Villepin responded that leaders were working together to find a solution to the crisis.

"I expected better from you," De Villepin chided Ayrault. "Everyone is playing his role."

Nonetheless, Chirac's decision is likely to gut the proposal that De Villepin had hurried through the National Assembly using special procedures to avoid debate. The president's proposed amendments would reduce a probationary period for young workers from two years to one, and require employers to justify firings in writing.

De Villepin's standing could be fatally wounded by the demise of his project and he might join the list of prime ministers who have paid the price for clashing with the powerful labor unions here.

Some of the marchers who filled the streets of Paris on Tuesday carried signs describing the prime minister as a political cadaver. Chirac, Sarkozy and capitalism also were targets of derisive chants by a festive mix of high school and college students, union members and activists from an assortment of far-left parties.

Police turned out in force to prevent violence and crime, which have marred previous protests. Teams of riot police and plainclothes officers swarmed train and subway stations, checking identification and frisking groups of young men.

As dusk fell Tuesday, however, skirmishes broke out in the Place d'Italie, the destination of the marchers, where youths threw objects at police and news photographers before dispersing.

Police made 383 arrests in Paris and at least 137 in the provinces. Thirty-five people, including four officers, suffered injuries, officials said.

The hard-charging Sarkozy, a presidential contender, went to the Place d'Italie at 9 p.m. to applaud the work of the police as "absolutely remarkable."

Known as a tough-talking crime fighter, Sarkozy has gained popularity with voters during the crisis by remaking himself as a pragmatic negotiator willing to compromise, according to new polls.

Although unions and students have insisted on full withdrawal of the labor law, their tone Tuesday suggested that they might be ready to return to the negotiating table.


Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz contributed to this report.

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