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Chirac to Withdraw Labor Law That Caused Wide France Riots

By Elaine Sciolino


President Jacques Chirac crumbled under pressure from students, unions, business executives and even some of his own party leaders on Monday, announcing that he would rescind a disputed youth labor law intended to make hiring more flexible.

The retreat was a humiliating political defeat for both Chirac and his political protege, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, underscoring the paralysis of their center-right government 13 months before presidential elections.

It also laid bare the deep popular resistance to liberalizing France’s rigid labor market, and makes any new economic reform politically impossible before a new government is in place, and perhaps not even then.

“Dead and buried,” is how Jean-Claude Mailly, leader of the leftist union Force Ouvriere, described the fate of the labor law. “The goal has been achieved.”

The cancellation of the law, which Chirac had signed on April 2, is aimed in large part at bringing an end to two months of major protests and strikes throughout France that have shut down universities, threatened to hurt tourism and the economy, and brought violent clashes between young people and the police.

Still, a student protest march scheduled for Tuesday will proceed as planned, and students at several French universities voted Monday to continue blocking access to classes, demanding more concessions from the government in work practices and job security.

“Today is a defining victory but there are still many issues outstanding,” said Bruno Julliard, who heads UNEF, the main student union.

The new law was intended to give employers a simpler way of hiring workers under 26 on a trial basis without immediately exposing companies to the cumbersome and costly benefits that make hiring and firing such a daunting enterprise. Opposition to the law reflects the deep-rooted fear among the French of losing their labor and social protection in a globalized world.

In a television interview on Monday evening on the private channel TF1, Villepin, who had been widely touted as a possible center-right candidate in the May 2007 presidential elections, said he hoped to learn lessons from what he called “an extremely difficult time,” contending that he had never harbored presidential aspirations.