-  Sunday 20 September 2020

    France set for new round of youth marches

    Paris - France is bracing for a "black Tuesday" of strikes and demonstrations against the government's contested youth jobs contract, amid warnings of a growing risk of violence.

    An alliance of trade unions and student organisations has called for a fifth day of nationwide protests in its campaign against Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's First Employment Contract (CPE), which makes it easier for employers to hire and fire workers younger than 26.

    Public transport is expected to be badly hit across the country, with only one metro train in two operating in the capital. Airport authorities have warned passengers to expect delays and cancellations.Bernard Thibault of the General Labour Confederation (CGT) union said he hoped Tuesday would be a "turning-point" in the three-week long protest movement.

    "We have not yet reached the climax of the dispute. Each day of action has seen an ever bigger turn-out. The only solution is withdrawal of the CPE. And we can do it," he told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

    Another powerful union - Workers' Force (FO) - has called for work stoppages to extend beyond Tuesday unless the government backs down.

    The escalation follows protests in Paris that turned violent on Thursday and then two days of fruitless contacts between Villepin and delegations of union and student leaders.

    Union leaders stormed out of a meeting with the prime minister on Friday accusing him of intransigence, and on Saturday the main student groups boycotted their encounter - instead reading a prepared text outside Villepin's offices demanding an end to the CPE.

    After an exchange of views with three smaller student groups, Villepin said he wanted to "respond to the two major concerns of young people on the CPE" - which are the contract's two-year trial period, and the employers' free hand during that time to sack without explanation.

    However the prime minister gave no indication that he would drop the contract, which was passed by parliament two weeks ago and is now awaiting approval from the Constitutional Council - the state body that rules on the constitutionality of new laws.

    Villepin, 52, says the measure is a vital tool to open up the labour market and bring down France's chronically high rate of youth unemployment which is more than 50 percent in the high-immigration suburbs hit by rioting in November.

    There were growing fears that those disturbances could reignite after police said most of Thursday's violence in Paris was caused by youngsters from poor suburban housing estates. Gangs of masked youths smashed windows, set fire to cars and robbed students on the Invalides esplanade.

    Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy warned that demonstrating students are increasingly open to risk. "I have to say in this matter I am very concerned. This has got to stop as soon as possible," he said.

    Across the country some 60 out of 84 universities were closed or disrupted at the end of last week, as well as 600 out of 4 300 lycees or secondary schools.

    Laurence Parisot, head of the employers' organisation MEDEF, warned that the wave of protests was starting to damage the economy.

    "The events are jeopardising our country's economy. They are jeopardising our image and reputation, and they are jeopardising the solidity of our social fabric," she said.

    With Villepin's future on the line, political scientist Philippe Braud said he was banking everything on pushing the contract into law.

    "His firmness is surprising in France, because this kind of behaviour is rare among politicians who are always afraid of being junked at the next election. But Dominique de Villepin would have resigned or yielded by this time if he didn't think he had a chance of pulling it off.

    "The odds are long but it is winnable," said Braud, a professor at the Sciences-Po school of political science.

    Hundreds of people staged a rally in central Paris on Sunday to demand an end to the protests and the re-opening of universities hit by student strikes


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