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Chirac to sign controversial French labor law

President Jacques Chirac said Friday he would press ahead with a labor law making it easier to fire younger workers, but he offered some concessions in hopes of calming furious protests.
French police hold students back during a protest against the youth job law in Paris
French police use shields on Friday against students protesting a job law that would make it easier to fire young workers.Emmanuel Fradin / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Jacques Chirac said Friday he would press ahead with a contentious labor law making it easier to fire workers, but he offered some concessions in hopes of calming furious protests that led to nationwide strikes.

Chirac said he would reduce a trial period during which employees could be summarily dismissed from two years to one, and he would require employers to offer reasons for the dismissal.

In preserving the principle that workers under 26 would face a lack of job security, Chirac came down on the side of his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, who has argued that businesses will welcome the added flexibility, encouraging hirings that will bring down France’s chronic youth unemployment rates.

The contested jobs law “can be an effective tool for employment,” Chirac said.

The concessions appeared to anger, not appease, opponents of the law, who wanted it scrapped altogether.

“We don’t want to negotiate ... we don’t want it at all,” Bruno Julliard, head of the largest students’ union, said on TF1 television. “The president had the chance to give a clear answer, which he didn’t do.”

The head of the Worker’s Force union, Jean-Claude Mailly, said strikes already planned for next Tuesday should go ahead.

Displeased with modified law
A modified law “is not what was asked for,” he said.

Before Chirac’s speech, hundreds of students converged peacefully on the Place de la Bastille in Paris to demand that he not enact the law.

The French leader, however, said youth unemployment is a problem that cannot be ignored, and he reiterated his conservative government’s determination to make labor laws more flexible to free up enterprises.

“The time has come to move forward,” Chirac said. “We must work together to end this shocking situation whereby companies, out of fear of excessive inflexibilities, prefer to refuse an order or to move overseas rather than hire, even when so many people are trapped in unemployment.”

Young workers face a 22 percent unemployment rate — the highest in Western Europe.

Most French workers hold a permanent contract and can plan to hold their jobs until retirement. Employers who want to fire a worker must give three months’ notice to most employees, pay fines to the state and provide up to three years’ severance pay.

The crisis has wrecked government ties with unions, and made labor leaders unusually united.

It has radicalized youths, heightening already widespread fears about globalization and reviving suspicions about bosses and capitalism — possibly causing a long-lasting setback for the cause of reform.

Many youths who have protested fear job market challenges from rising economies like India and China and hope to secure permanent, highly protected job contracts that many of their parents enjoy.