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Shunning critics, Chirac signs youth job measure into law

Unions to press protests to get bill withdrawn

PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac signed a contested measure to promote jobs for youths into law yesterday even though he has said it would be replaced by a modified version to defuse a crisis that has led to violent demonstrations.

However, unions hoped that another round of strikes and demonstrations set for tomorrow would provide a still more powerful push to get the measure -- in any form -- withdrawn.

The head of the CFDT union predicted that the struggle would be drawn out and would not lose momentum when spring vacations start next week.

The governing party's leader in the lower house, Bernard Accoyer, said that starting tomorrow he would ask for meetings with unions to open a dialogue with critics, as Chirac asked, before a new bill is written. Previous efforts at dialogue have failed.

The contested measure, known as the First Job Contract, appeared in the ''Official Journal" yesterday in which all new laws are recorded. The measure is meant to cut a 22 percent unemployment rate among youths that reaches 50 percent in some poor, heavily immigrant neighborhoods. It offers an incentive for employers to hire those under 26 by enabling them to fire those workers within the first two years without saying why.

Chirac, in a television address Friday night, said he wanted a softer, revised law with two key modifications. Those changes would reduce the trial period for new young hires from two years to one. And in case of a firing, it would require employers to say why the employee was let go.

The modified version would replace the unpopular law, which Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has vigorously defended. Villepin cited the national statistics agency as saying it would create as many as 80,000 new jobs at no cost to the state.

Chirac said he signed the contested law out of respect for French institutions, noting that it had been passed by Parliament and approved by the Constitutional Council. But in a twist, he asked that the law not be applied.

Opposition politicians criticized that maneuver as ''surrealistic" and ''undemocratic."

Chirac's double-barreled approach -- keeping the law alive, at least in theory -- was a face-saving measure for Villepin. But asking for a second bill was seen as a rebuff. A decision announced Saturday to turn the writing of that bill over to lawmakers -- removing it from Villepin's hands -- was viewed as a further insult.

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