Fri, Mar 24, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Sarkozy calls for contract trial

STRATEGY?The French Interior Minister broke ranks on the controversial 'First Job Contract,' a move critics said was made with the presidential election in mind

AP , PARIS

Marseille football fans hold banners protesting against the First Employment Contract during a French Cup football match between Marseille and Sochaux at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy made a lone bid to placate a growing crisis over a contested employment law that has spurred violent street protests, saying he would like a six-month trial period for the measure.

Sarkozy's remarks in yesterday's edition of the weekly Paris-Match broke from Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's order for unity within government ranks. The interview was made available on Wednesday.

The remarks represented a clear effort by Sarkozy -- who is focused on next year's presidential election -- to distance himself from what is perceived as the government's unbending stance.

He said, however, he would not leave the government.

"The wise thing would be for everyone to agree to a six-month experiment," a trial period to pull the nation out of the growing crisis, Sarkozy said.

There was no immediate comment from the government. Sarkozy and Villepin sat side-by-side during parliament's question-and-answer period.

Villepin, who is also thought to be seeking the presidency, has maintained a firm line, refusing to "withdraw," "suspend" or "distort" the First Job Contract, despite mounting pressure from students and unions to do away with it. He is seeking dialogue with unions to amend the law, but protesters want it withdrawn.

Villepin appealed again on Wednesday for talks that "I'm sure will allow us to find an answer."

"I understand what youths feel ... their desire to be heard. They want the same chances as their elders. This is legitimate," Villepin told lawmakers.

Student protesters geared up for widespread street demonstrations planned for yesterday. A young man was found dead at a university occupied by protesters in the eastern city of Strasbourg on Wednesday, but his school said the protest was peaceful and that violence was not suspected. The exact cause of his death was unclear.

A 39-year-old demonstrator caught up in skirmishes with police on Saturday remained in serious condition in a coma.

The jobs law, passed by parliament this month, is aimed at reducing sky-high joblessness among youths by injecting flexibility into France's labor market. Critics fear it will hurt job security.

Expected to take effect next month, it allows employers to fire workers younger than 26 years old in the first two years of employment without giving a reason.

Of France's 84 universities, 18 were shut down by students and 41 others were partially blocked, the Education Ministry said. A national strike day was set for March 28 to try to force the government to withdraw the law.

On Tuesday, protesters lobbed bottles at riot police after the fourth student-led protest in eight days drew at least 5,000 people marching around the Left Bank.

Sarkozy's remarks in Paris-Match were made in an interview conducted on Saturday, before nationwide demonstrations degenerated into violence in Paris.

He couched his proposal for a six-month trial period in professional concern, noting that as interior minister he is charged with public order "in particularly difficult conditions."

The minister promised severe punishment "to make an example" of anyone taking part in violence.

"Hooligans should expect no weakness from us," he told lawmakers.

Some newspapers said Sarkozy was laying the groundwork for his exit from the government.

"No," he said in the Paris-Match interview. "One doesn't leave the government on an opportunistic decision." Only "disagreement on the fundamentals" could justify such a move, he said. "I have solidarity while being different."

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