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    France Braces for Strike on Standoff Between Unions, Government

    March 22,2006
    France, caught in a standoff between the government and unions on a new work law, is bracing for a disruption of services on March 28 with workers at the national rail company and the Paris subway joining the protests.

    ``We have to take the path of dialogue,'' Eric Woerth, a member of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, said in an interview. ``We can't have reforms without consulting the social partners.''

    Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has said he will not revoke the law, known by its French acronym CPE, which lets companies fire workers under 26 within the first two years of employment with little notice or severance. Unions have made the law's revocation a condition to start talks with the government.

    The most contentious issue faced by de Villepin in his 10 months in office, the CPE has divided the governing party and united the opposition Socialists, as they joined forces with the unions and students just 14 months before France's presidential elections. Lawmakers from the UMP party asked de Villepin to break the deadlock in a meeting today.

    Protests are widening after Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer de France, which manages the railways and part of the French capital's suburban train network, said yesterday it filed a notice to strike from 8 p.m. on March 27.

    Employees will also abstain from work at Reseau Autonome des Transports Parisiens, or RATP, which manages the 16 lines of the Paris metro, said Jean-Michel Drou, a representative of Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail, France's largest union.

    ``It's likely to touch other transportation companies'' such as Air France-KLM SA, Drou said.

    Against the Law

    Two out of three French people are against the law, a survey of 857 people by polling company CSA showed last week. The law is part of de Villepin's attempt to curb unemployment, which is 9.6 percent nationwide and 22.2 percent among the young. Protests against the law drew as many as 1.5 million people to the streets across the country on March 18.

    De Villepin, 52, has said he won't repeal the law. ``We have to give the CPE a chance,'' he said in an interview with student magazine Citato published yesterday. He argues that greater firing flexibility will encourage hiring.

    Protests against the law have intensified in the last few weeks as students have occupied universities, disrupting classes. More than half of France's universities still remain on strike, and high schools joined the protests. The Sorbonne University, a symbol of the 1968 student movement, has been sealed off the rest of the Latin Quarter. A demonstration yesterday afternoon in Paris ended near the Luxembourg gardens.

    `Go Quickly'

    ``We're calling for work stoppages, strikes and demonstrations,'' on March 28, Rene Valladon, secretary general of the Force Ouvriere union, said on LCI television this week.

    Although less than 10 percent of the French workforce is unionized, unions are still a force to reckon with in the public sector and can disrupt transport and other public services.

    Socialist leaders including First Secretary Francois Hollande, former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and former Culture Minister Jack Lang marched March 18 with demonstrators.

    ``We are worried about where all of this is heading,'' said Arnaud Montebourg, a Socialist lawmaker. ``Dialogue is what should have happened before. The situation is now blocked. It's an explosive situation where the political institutions are discredited.''

    De Villepin's approval rating fell to its lowest since he became head of government last May, the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche said March 19. A survey by Ifop showed 61 percent were dissatisfied with de Villepin, up from 54 percent last month.

    ``We need to get out of this with our heads held high which means we need initiatives,'' said UMP law maker Yves Jego. ``We must go quickly.''

    Source
    bloomberg




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