March 13, 2006

Students raise pressure on French PM

PARIS (Reuters) - French students prepared to step up
protests on Tuesday against a job reform championed by
conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose
authority has been hit by popular discontent over the measure.

Students planned to take to the streets again after
demonstrating on Monday to demand the government abandon the
reform, designed to help slash unemployment among young people
running at 23 percent across France.

Villepin, widely believed to be considering a presidential
bid in 2007, has ignored calls from opponents and members of
his own party for him to rethink, suspend or drop the project
and now faces the biggest test of his 10 months in power.

He says the reform would encourage firms to hire young
people, but opponents say it would make it easier to fire them.

Demonstrations are watched nervously by governments in
France because street protests in 1995 are widely seen as
having been responsible for the defeat of conservative Prime
Minister Alain Juppe in snap elections two years later.

The challenge facing Villepin escalated at the weekend when
riot police stormed Paris's Sorbonne University to end the
first student occupation there since a May 1968 student revolt,
which weakened Villepin's political idol Charles de Gaulle.

Villepin has offered to negotiate new guarantees with
unions and employers, but they wanted the labor reform

The measure would allow firms to hire people aged under 26
for a two-year trial before offering them a permanent job.

"There is a problem of confidence with Dominique de
Villepin," CFDT trade union secretary general Francois Chereque
told Les Echos newspaper in an interview.

Initial protests won modest support, prompting Villepin to
railroad the measure through parliament to override opposition
obstruction tactics.

But that move, a rise in unemployment and missteps over a
planned privatization and the scrapping of a toxic warship
fueled public anger.

Up to a million people took to the streets in nationwide
demonstrations last week.

Political analysts say Villepin needs a swift end to the
protests if he is to avoid fatal damage to his thinly veiled
ambition to contest the 2007 presidential polls.