French labour debacle: De Villepin admits errors

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has admitted in a newspaper interview that he made errors and was misunderstood in his management of a hotly contested youth labour law that has sent students and unions into the streets in violent protests.

De Villepin denied, however, that he has been disavowed by President Jacques Chirac, who has ordered up a new, softer version of the law in a bid to buy social peace that, instead, appears to have fed opponents’ ardor. Unions and students looked to a new day of strikes and protests set for Tuesday.

After triggering strikes and protests, the law appears to be taking a toll on De Villepin. He was dealt a further blow with the decision, announced on Saturday, to place the new measure in the hands of Parliament — not the government.

De Villepin was criticised for being intransigent in insisting on keeping the law, which is aimed at encouraging companies to hire youths under 26 by making it easier to fire them.

”There is misunderstanding and incomprehension about the direction of my action. I profoundly regret it,” he told Le Journal du Dimanche. Asked if he had made mistakes, he replied: ”Of course, in all political action there is some error.”

But, he added: ”The main error, the only one that would have been unforgivable, would have been to do nothing against the mass unemployment in our country.”

The interview was conducted on Friday night, after Chirac spoke. It was made available on Saturday night.

A poll by the CSA firm published on Saturday showed that 72% of the French were not convinced by Chirac, and 75% said De Villepin was weakened by the crisis.

In an apparent bid to save face for the government, Chirac said he would sign the current measure into law — likely to happen on Sunday. However, his demand for a new text modifying two key points effectively suspends it. That decision gave a boost to Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, De Villepin’s party rival, who had called for the measure’s suspension.

Sarkozy’s entourage made clear on Saturday that he would play an active role in devising a new law. France-2 television quoted his entourage as saying he had begun making contacts with unions.

Sarkozy and others called on Saturday for dialogue with unions and students so that a new text could be written.

”All those who truly want dialogue seize the hand of dialogue,” Sarkozy said after a meeting of key ministers and governing party leaders with De Villepin.


However, there were no signs of a crack in the firm opposition to the law that has spread from students to trade unions and the political left and crippled dozens of universities and high schools with strikes and blockades. Even some members of the governing UMP party remained critical.

In a national television address on Friday night, Chirac offered to modify two key elements of the law, reducing a trial period from two years to one and requiring employers to provide an explanation if an employee is fired.

But the bid by Chirac to defuse an escalating crisis over the law only fanned opponents’ discontent.

The opposition Socialists promised a counterproposal — a Bill to repeal the law — while unions and students planned new strikes and protests on Tuesday.

Bernard Accoyer, leader of the governing Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, in the National Assembly, said he and the Senate leader for UMP will write the new Bill. Like Sarkozy, he called for dialogue so the new text could be debated ”as soon as possible”.

”We will do everything to open a dialogue, an exchange, with all unions, professional groups and youths,” Accoyer said.

Union leader Jean-Claude Mailly, of the Workers’ Force, said he will ”not close the door” to talks — if no conditions are attached and if dialogue ”could lead to withdrawal” of the contested law.

”So, for the time being, nothing in our position has changed,” Mailly said.


The measure is meant to cut a 22% unemployment rate among youths that reaches 50% in some poor, heavily immigrant neighbourhoods. De Villepin said in the interview that, according to the national statistics agency, it would create up to 80 000 new jobs a year ”for a budgetary cost of zero”.

”The road map is clear … Let us not fool ourselves about the gravity of the situation in our country: the crisis in the suburbs was an alert,” he said referring to unrest last fall among poor suburban youth.

A collective of 11 leftist parties agreed on Saturday to the need to ”continue the mobilisation and help amplify the movement to obtain withdrawal of the [law]”.

Unions and students hope to mobilise support against the law in Tuesday demonstrations. A similar protest last Tuesday brought more than one million people into the streets of France.

On Friday, reacting to Chirac’s speech, hundreds of students held spontaneous protest marches through Paris and other cities.

Some youths ransacked a local UMP office in Paris’s ninth district and broke storefronts. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Nathalie Schuck and Jean-Marie Godard in Paris contributed to this report

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