French leaders abandon young-worker law

Talks don't produce compromise to boost prime minister weakened by months of protests, dismal polls


PARIS -- Giving in after two months of protests by students and labor unions, the French government yesterday withdrew portions of a new labor law that had been intended to cut unemployment by making it easier to hire and fire young workers.

A weary Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who staked his political reputation on the law, announced the decision after a weekend of infighting and negotiation in his divided government.

"The conditions necessary for trust are not present either on the side of the young people nor on the side of businesses to permit the enactment of the contract," Villepin said in a televised statement. "I wanted to act quickly because the dramatic situation and despair of many young people required it. ... Not everyone understood that, and I regret it."

The government will try to end the crisis by eliminating the two central reforms in the proposal: a two-year probationary period for employees younger than 26 and the ability to fire the employees without justification during that period.

Villepin had argued that making regulations more flexible would encourage employers to take a chance on new hires, especially in immigrant areas where unemployment has reached 50 percent. But critics accused him of wanting to dismantle hard-won job security safeguards.

The announcement yesterday made it clear that Villepin and President Jacques Chirac failed to come up with a face-saving alternative during this weekend's discussions in the ruling center-right coalition.

"It's time to bring down the curtain on this ridiculous farce," said Jack Lang, a leader of the opposition Socialist Party. "This conflict revealed a profound regime crisis."

Despite escalating and occasionally violent marches and strikes, Villepin had insisted he would stand firm. But his popularity plummeted by half to a record-low 25 percent in opinion polls. He lost the all-important support of Chirac, who appointed him a year ago in hopes of positioning Villepin as a presidential candidate for elections next year.

Villepin, who has never run for office, tried to present himself as a courageous leader willing to confront entrenched left-wing forces to streamline a costly welfare state blamed for economic stagnation. Instead, analysts said, the crisis hurt him and strengthened his rival and fellow presidential hopeful, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

"The situation is a real failure" for Villepin, said Jacques Capdevielle, research director at the Political Science University here. "He wanted to pull the rug out from under Sarkozy by looking like a great reformer, and now the situation has reversed itself. Today Sarkozy, who once looked like an extreme free-market liberal, is the man of compromise and dialogue."

The results were primarily a victory for two forces in a society that doggedly resists globalization: students and labor unions.

It was not the first time that the Chirac-Villepin team gambled and lost. Last year, the voters rejected a proposed constitution for the European Union, a resounding rebuke to a government that sees itself as a leader in European unity. In 1997, Chirac called early elections - at Villepin's urging - to consolidate his legislative control and instead was forced to share power with a center-left government for five years.

Sebastian Rotella and Achrene Sicakyuz write for the Los Angeles Times.

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