Contested labor law is upheld in France

Students block transport links

unions vow strikes, marches


PARIS --France's Constitutional Council upheld the constitutionality of a fiercely contested new labor law yesterday, dealing a blow to opposition Socialists who had asked the council to strike it down but extending the crisis facing the government.

Students kept up the pressure, blocking roads and railways around the country, tying up traffic and halting train service in several cities. The country's influential union syndicates have promised another day of nationwide strikes and protest marches on Tuesday.

The council's ruling throws the onus for resolving the crisis onto French President Jacques Chirac, who alone has the power to send the law back to parliament. But he is widely expected to back his embattled prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, who insists that the law be put into effect.

The Elysee Palace said the president would address the nation late today.

The Constitutional Council's unqualified decision deprived Chirac of any face-saving cover under which he might send the law back to parliament for further deliberations without looking as though he was bowing to protesters.

Many members of Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement suggested yesterday that he will implement the law while fattening social benefits in a bid to placate the students and unions.

The government used that strategy to extricate itself from the unrest that roiled France in May 1968.

The so-called Grenelle agreements of that year, named for the Paris street where the Ministry of Social Affairs is located, raised the minimum wage by 35 percent, raised public-sector salaries by 7 percent and cut the work week from an average of 43 hours to 40, among other things.

But some experts said the government, already trying to trim costly social benefits that it can ill afford, would have trouble coming up with offerings rich enough to satisfy the students and the unions.

"The difference between May 1968 and now is that the state doesn't have any money," said Sylvie Goulard, a professor of political science at the Institute of Political Studies here. Many members of Chirac's party have been urging him to use special constitutional powers to delay implementing the law pending the outcome of negotiations, to avoid inciting more anger. The students and unions have refused to engage in a dialogue until the law is withdrawn.

But Chirac has supported Villepin, who has vowed to increase employment by making the country's rigid labor laws more flexible.

The prime minister's latest effort to introduce a new kind of labor contract - adding to the 18 already on the books - has backfired.

The new contract would give employers the right to fire new employees 25 years old and under in the first two years without the cumbersome and costly procedures now required. Students and unions regard that as an erosion of worker rights rather than as a useful incentive to employers.

Villepin's approval rating has dropped 7 percentage points this month alone to 29 percent, the lowest since he took office.

French students, meanwhile, are reveling in their newfound power. They blocked roads and railways in parts of the country, angered by the Ministry of Education's order to reopen all high schools closed by the protests.

The ministry said 556 high schools out of 4,330 in the country and 58 of the country's 84 universities had suffered varying levels of disruption.

At the Gare de Lyon railway station here, hundreds of students swarmed onto the tracks, halting trains for much of the afternoon.

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