Students and Unions Seek Ways to Pressure French Government

Unions and student leaders on Wednesday sought new ways to pressure the government to withdraw a youth labor law, considering more protests a day after a nationwide strike disrupted travel and brought 1 million people into the streets across France.

Top unions, who met Wednesday, urged President Jacques Chirac to intervene and were mulling whether to order another day of nationwide strikes on top of new demonstrations, possibly as early as next week. The Workers Force and CGT unions favored strikes, but others were balking.

Either way, union and student leaders remained unanimous in demanding the law be withdrawn.

Chirac's office said he would speak out on the issue in the next few days. So far, he has stood behind Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin 's defense of the law but pressure on the premier has reached unprecedented heights.

Villepin again defended the measure in parliament, arguing that youth unemployment cannot be ignored.

"The situation is not acceptable. It is unjust, even a cause for despair," he said.

Students and labor unions say the labor law will erode France's cherished workplace protections. Set to take effect next month, it would let companies fire employees under age 26 without reason in the first two years on the job.

While Villepin reiterated his willingness to discuss possible "improvements" to the law, he again gave no hint that he will withdraw it — rebuffing the pressure of Tuesday's massive demonstrations. More than 1 million people poured into the streets and strikers shut down the Eiffel Tower and disrupted air, rail and bus service in the largest nationwide protests of the law.

One possible way out of the crisis could come Thursday, with an expected decision by the Constitutional Council on whether the law violates international labor codes.

Student leader Bruno Julliard said the impasse could be broken if the measure is struck down by the council's nine members, who rule on the constitutionality of laws.

"Everyone would know that it would also be a rejection of the government, so it could be a way out of the crisis," Julliard, who heads the main student association, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

In the meantime, Julliard added, students plan to diversify their protest tactics by stepping up efforts to blockade public transport centers such as airports and train stations.

Already on Wednesday, youths blocked traffic on the major bypass around the western city of Rennes and several other roads leading out of town. Protesters previously have disrupted rail service by occupying train stations.

Fractures have begun to appear in the conservative government.

Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, in a clear break with Villepin, suggested suspending the new contract to allow for negotiations.

"When there's a misunderstanding, one must make a compromise. This word is not a bad word," Sarkozy said in an interview with the daily Parisien.

Villepin says the greater flexibility the law allows will encourage the hiring of young workers, who face a 22 percent unemployment rate — the highest in Western Europe. But as protests have grown, his government — and his chances of running for president next year — have appeared increasingly fragile.

A survey published Wednesday showed Villepin's popularity rating sinking to a new low, with just 29 percent of respondents supporting him.

Violence flared again following Tuesday's otherwise largely peaceful protests. Riot officers in Paris moved aggressively against youths who pelted them with stones and bottles. Police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse several thousand youths.

Police said 46 demonstrators were injured in Paris, along with five police officers. Sarkozy said nine police were injured nationwide.

Police made 787 arrests around the country — 488 of them in Paris, said National Police Chief Michel Gaudin.