French PM Villepin Downplays Resignation Talk
PARIS – Some 2,000 angry students massed on railroad tracks in Paris Thursday, halting international train traffic in a fresh push to force a new youth labor law off the books.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin refused to say whether the measure would be repealed.
Villepin spoke more clearly about his own destiny, brushing off growing speculation that he would resign.
President Jacques Chirac "gave me a mission, and this mission, I will lead it to the end," Villepin told a news conference. "All the rest is pure speculation and fantasy."
Calling for calm, he said he was listening to the voices of discontent over his reform aimed at denting sky-high joblessness among youth by making it easier for employers to hire and fire younger workers. Lawmakers from the governing Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, met for a second day with unions and students in search of a way out. Protesters are demanding the measure be withdrawn.
"The immediate priority, as we all know, is restoring calm," Villepin said. "It is time to get out of the crisis."
The job law has inspired disruptive protests at hundreds of universities and high schools and spurred massive demonstrations and violence by some protesters.
The law originally provided for a two-year trial period during which employers could fire youths under 26 without cause, a measure meant to spur hiring. Protesters say it would make young employees disposable.
Stepping up wildcat disruptions, students set up a pre-dawn blockade Thursday that halted a convoy of parts for the Airbus A380 jumbo jet, the world's largest airliner and the crown jewel of European aviation.
Students paralyzed all train traffic at the Gare du Nord station in Paris for nearly two hours, blocking trains to and from London, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Some 200 police in riot gear moved the protesters out, allowing thousands of passengers packed into the station to start their travels.
Protesters earlier occupied the tracks of another Paris station, the Gare de l'Est, for an hour. In the eastern city of Strasbourg, several hundred students blocked the Pont de l'Europe bridge that links France and Germany.
There was some violence during the evacuation of some 450 students blocking rails at a train station in the southwest city of Toulouse, and four protesters and a police officer were hospitalized, officials of the local prefecture said. The officer had been hit with a stone. The Sud railway workers union denounced the force used by police as "totally out of proportion."
"This is very irritating, but I can understand it," said John Ring, a 40-year-old French businessman at the Gare du Nord who was trying to get to The Hague, Netherlands. "What I can't understand is how the government would allow the situation to get to this point."
Villepin relentlessly defended the job proposal for weeks until Chirac signed the controversial measure into law last weekend but ordered the talks with labor and student groups.
Villepin refused to prejudge the outcome of negotiations, appearing to back down from his previous, inflexible stance.
"I am pragmatic. In this time of dialogue it is important to be open," he said. "I am listening."
But the prime minister insisted that the 23 percent youth unemployment rate, which climbs above 50 percent in depressed, heavily immigrant neighborhoods, is at the heart of many French problems, including riots last fall.
"It is my responsibility, as head of the government, not to allow such a situation go unanswered," he said. "Our country today needs action."