French strikers seem to be gaining


PARIS -- French students and labor unions staged another day of nationwide strikes and marches against a labor reform law yesterday 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 President Jacques Chirac to end a two-month crisis that has shut down schools and universities and raised fears 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 protesters demonstrated across the nation, matching the turnout of a similar "day of action" last week, authorities said. The protests were generally peaceful, though 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 impact.

Chirac's 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 under 26. It also allowed the prime minister's arch-rival, 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 Villepin during a debate in the National Assembly yesterday, declaring that the intra-party feud had reduced him to a figurehead.

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

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

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

Nonetheless, Chirac's decision is likely to gut the reform that Villepin had hurried through the 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.

Villepin could be wounded irrevocably by the demise of his project.

Some of the marchers who filled the streets of Paris yesterday 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.

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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