PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac offered to soften a labor law that makes it easier to fire young workers, but the student and labor leaders who have organized nationwide strikes rejected his compromise yesterday and repeated calls for the measure's repeal.
Having brought more than 1 million demonstrators onto French streets this week, they renewed strike calls for Tuesday.
In a televised address, Chirac said he would sign the law but seek amendments to ease concerns about two provisions.
He said the contract's trial period, during which employers could summarily dismiss workers younger than 26, would be reduced from two years to one. Employers would also have to offer reasons for firing, he said -- something not required in the original law.
''It is time to unblock the situation by being fair and reasonable," said the 73-year-old president, inviting labor and student leaders to ''take their full part" in discussions on his proposals.
The strike leaders were dismissive.
''We don't want to negotiate," said Bruno Julliard, head of the largest students' union, on TF1 television. ''The president had the chance to give a clear answer, which he didn't do."
Gerard Aschiere, a labor leader, said Chirac ''didn't respond to demands of millions of workers and youth."
The contract was among a series of measures drawn up after rioting in depressed suburbs last fall that laid bare the chronic problem of youth unemployment, especially among those with few qualifications and from immigrant backgrounds.
Nearly 1 French youth in 4 is unemployed, the highest rate in Western Europe and more than double the national average.
Chirac had little room to maneuver. Abandoning the contract would have been a mortal blow for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, its champion and a Chirac loyalist, and for the wider cause of reform in France. But in playing to all sides, Chirac may have prolonged the crisis.
Villepin had argued that giving companies greater flexibility and allowing them to fire young workers would spur hiring, giving youths vital experience that could help them get more permanent contracts down the line.
In his address, Chirac backed Villepin on that point.
''We must work together to end this shocking situation whereby companies, out of fear of excessive inflexibilities, prefer to refuse an order or to move overseas rather than hire, even when so many people are trapped in unemployment," he said.
Chirac also said no new youth contracts would be signed until his proposed modifications have been included, effectively suspending the measure. Officials of the governing party in the National Assembly indicated that they were prepared to introduce the amendments proposed by Chirac next week.
Many youths who have protested fear job market challenges from rising economies like India and China and hope to secure permanent, highly protected job contracts that many of their parents enjoy.
Most French workers hold a permanent contract and can plan to hold their jobs until retirement. Employers who want to fire a worker must give three months' notice to most employees, pay fines to the state, and provide up to three years' severance pay.
According to new government figures released Thursday, unemployment among French youths is 22 percent, far higher than the nation's national average of 9.6 percent.