Chirac says he will sign labor law, seek changes


PARIS -- Seeking compromise after weeks of protests of labor reform legislation, President Jacques Chirac announced yesterday that he would sign the law but quickly seek modifications to meet the concerns of angry students and labor unions.

Chirac's speech on nationwide television was a much-anticipated response to a growing conflict that has brought strikes, protests, campus sit-ins and violence in recent weeks. The increasingly reclusive Chirac addressed the nation for the first time since November's riots in immigrant-dominated public housing, the last crisis to hit his weakened and divided government.

His popularity at an all-time low as he heads into his final year in office, the president tried to regain the initiative by intervening in one of the periodic battles pitting French governments against unions and students defending the nation's generous labor benefits.

Chirac's decision to enact the law showed his support for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, his longtime protege, who has staked his presidential aspirations on a law he says would spur hiring of unemployed young people by easing job security regulations.

At the same time, Chirac promised a concession to protesters by saying he will seek to cut in half the law's two-year probation period for new hires under age 26. The other amendment, Chirac said, would be a requirement that employers explain their reasons for dismissing employees during that first year, rather than dismissing them without cause. The modifications will be contained in legislation that will be sent to the National Assembly next week, the president said.

The reaction from protesters was swift and negative. Crowds of students in the Place de la Bastille here and in other plazas around the country booed as they watched the speech in cafes. Leaders of the political opposition, who had demanded that the law be scuttled outright, insisted that they would press on with planned national strikes Tuesday.

"He has complicated things rather than making them simpler," said Francois Hollande, president of the Socialist Party, in televised comments. He called for a large turnout Tuesday, but he also urged restraint.

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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