French Job Law Talks Stall; More Strikes Loom

Union leaders failed in talks Friday to force France's prime minister to withdraw a divisive new jobs law, saying they would go ahead with plans for a nationwide strike next week.

Protests by university and high school students, sometimes drawing crowds numbering in the tens of thousands, have surge in recent days over the measure, testing the strength of the conservative government before elections next year.

"We are facing a total refusal," Francois Chereque, secretary general of the CFDT union, said after a 75-minute meeting with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

The only apparent concession from Villepin was an invitation for the leading student groups to meet with him Saturday but that was declined, said Karl Stoeckel of the UNL union. Two smaller student groups, however, have agreed to meet with Villepin.

Villepin's meeting with five leading unions got off to a combative start, with labor leaders riled by President Jacques Chirac's declaration earlier in the day that the law must be applied.

"We were here today to tell him: 'If you want the situation to calm down, if you want real negotiations to open, you must understand that you must withdraw"' the job contract, said Jean-Claude Mailly of the Workers Force union. "He talked to us about the possibilities of making changes, improvements, and we told him that that was not what we are asking for."

Villepin described Friday's meeting as "a first step" and said he hoped for more talks next week. But it remained unclear how he would calm the student protests.

Unions representing employers, who also met with the prime minister, voiced support for the jobs measure but expressed concern for France.

"We believe (the violence) endangers our country's economy, endangers the image and reputation of our country and also endangers the solidity of the social fabric," said Laurence Parisot, head of the powerful employers' union MEDEF.

The jobs law, meant to put the brakes on sky-high unemployment among youths and make France's economy more flexible, would allow employers to more easily hire — and fire — workers under 26. Critics feel it will eat into job protections and leave youths even more vulnerable.

Fallout from the jobs law, passed by parliament this month and expected to take effect in April, has shaken students and government alike. It could take a toll on the governing conservatives, including Villepin, both top would-be contenders for the presidential elections next year.

On Thursday, youths with baseball bats attacked student protesters at the Paris park in front of Napoleon's tomb and others hurled rocks at riot police, who responded with baton charges and tear gas.

Nationwide, police made 630 arrests, and 90 police officers were injured, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday. In all, there have been 1,420 arrests and 453 officers injured since clashes first broke out on March 11, he added.