Seeking compromise after weeks of protests against labor reform legislation, President Jacques Chirac announced Friday that he would sign the law but quickly seek modifications to meet the concerns of angry students and labor unions.
Chirac’s speech on nationwide television was a much-anticipated response to a growing conflict that has brought strikes, protests, campus sit-ins and violence. It was the first time the increasingly reclusive Chirac addressed the nation since November’s devastating riots in predominantly immigrant housing projects, the last crisis to hit his weakened and divided government.
His popularity at an all-time low as he heads into his final year in office, the president tried to regain the initiative by intervening in one of the periodic battles pitting French governments against unions and students defending the nation’s generous labor benefits.
Chirac’s decision to enact the law showed his continued support for his longtime protege, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who has staked his presidential aspirations on a law he says would spur hiring of unemployed young people by easing some job security regulations.
“Villepin wants to offer all these young people new opportunities for employment,” Chirac said. “That’s why this government is committed to balancing more flexibility for businesses but also new guarantees for employees.... I think this law can be effective for employment.”
At the same time, Chirac promised a concession to protesters by saying he would seek to cut in half the law’s two-year probation period for new hires younger than 26. The other amendment, he said, would be a requirement that employers explain their reasons for dismissing employees during that first year. The modifications will be contained in legislation that will be sent to the National Assembly next week, Chirac said.
The reaction from protesters was swift and negative. Crowds of students in the Place de la Bastille here and in other plazas around the country booed as they watched the televised speech in cafes. Leaders of the political opposition, who had demanded that the law be scuttled outright, insisted that they would press on with planned national strikes Tuesday.
Chirac “has complicated things rather than making them simpler,” said Francois Hollande, leader of the Socialist Party, in televised comments. “The idea of a maneuver, of a slowdown tactic, comes unavoidably to our minds.... He has failed to achieve the objective that he should have aimed for, to pacify, to explain a position of justice and reconciliation.”
As Hollande called for a large turnout Tuesday, he also urged restraint. Protests last week were marred by clashes between students and police as well as attacks on students by roving gangs from tough housing projects, where resurgent tension raises fear of new riots.
“I appeal for a lot of responsibility,” Hollande said. “The situation of our country is not good. There is a risk of violence.”
On Friday, some student protesters faced off with riot police in Paris and other cities, occupying universities and schools and blocking roads and railways.
At the center of the furor is De Villepin, who has never run for elective office but made international headlines with his fiery rhetoric against the invasion of Iraq in the United Nations in 2003.
In pushing the labor law, De Villepin tried to demonstrate resolve and political courage by targeting youth unemployment, which is 23%, and defying powerful leftist forces. De Villepin is locked in a power struggle with Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a hard-nosed reformer with whom he is expected to face off in next year’s presidential election.
But the law was also a gamble for a government already weakened by the riots and the crushing defeat of a proposed European Union constitution in a referendum last year.
De Villepin “has a strategy of tension, intensifying the crisis with the idea that public opinion will eventually come around to his side against the protests,” said Nicolas Baverez, an economist and historian. “But he is playing with fire.
“For this kind of reform, a test of strength is inevitable, as when [British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher took on the unions” during her tenure, Baverez said. “But you need a political mandate, you need a well-articulated political project and great leadership capacity. Chirac and Villepin do not have those three things.”
Although De Villepin gained popularity among voters after Chirac appointed him last May, his hard-line approach in the crisis has revived criticism that he is out of touch with French society.
Sarkozy has urged De Villepin to offer a compromise. The continuing street tension makes Sarkozy vulnerable because, as the nation’s top law enforcement official, he could be blamed for incidents of street violence or police brutality.
On Friday night, Sarkozy praised Chirac’s announcement as “a wise decision.”