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France in fresh day of protests

BBC | April 4 2006

French public transport and air services are being disrupted in a day of nationwide protests against a new youth employment law.

Unions and student groups are hoping to repeat last week's rallies when more than a million people marched across the country against the CPE contracts.

However, there are hints that protest leaders may be preparing to enter talks with the government.

The law making it easy to hire and fire young people came into force on Sunday.

However the government has asked employers not to apply the law until amendments are made.

There are reports that more than 100,000 protesters are already marching in some cities, in what is a fifth day of nationwide protests in two months.

More than 200 rallies are planned over the course of the day, with the main rally set to get under way in Paris shortly.

Transport is being affected nationwide, although the impact appears weaker than a similar strike a week ago:

Civil aviation authorities report some delays at French airports and some internal flights are cancelled

Two-thirds of high-speed intercity rail links are operating normally

The Paris metro is operating almost normally and so are buses

Transport strikes are held in 32 other towns and cities including Marseille and Toulouse

Truce in sight?

Thousands of riot police are being deployed to prevent a repeat of the clashes and vandalism that marred several previous demonstrations, particularly in Paris.

There are, however, some signs that protesters may be willing to negotiate.

Bernard Thibault, head of trade union CGT, said the action was aimed at getting the law withdrawn as it is now legally in force.

"The law can therefore be enforced even though we've got the president and ministers at the same time jumping through hoops, the like of which we've never seen before and with good reason, asking employers not to enforce it," he told French radio.

"I hope the demonstrations will help us deal a fatal blow to the CPE."

On Friday, President Chirac pledged to shorten from two years to one the period in which young people could be fired and said employers would need a reason for the dismissal.

But trade unions say the proposed amendments are unacceptable.

French newspapers say Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has effectively taken over from Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in the search for a solution.

The two men are tipped as rivals as candidates for the right to succeed President Jacques Chirac in the 2007 presidential election.

Mr Sarkozy now seems to be the man in control, talking to the unions behind the scenes about what should happen next, the BBC's Caroline Wyatt reports.

Mr de Villepin's poll ratings for his handling of the economy have slumped to the lowest level since he took office nearly a year ago, in a survey released on Tuesday.

Mr de Villepin's government says the law will help tackle high levels of youth unemployment - currently running at more than 20%.

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