French unions call for national strike

French trade union leaders called last night for a national day of strike action next Tuesday against the prime minister Dominique de Villepin's controversial new youth employment law.

After protests brought up to 1.5 million people on to the streets across France on Saturday, unions had given Mr de Villepin until yesterday afternoon to withdraw his "first employment contract". But he continued to insist that his law was essential to win the fight against youth unemployment which at 23% - 50% in some Paris suburbs - is among the worst in Europe.

Before crunch talks last night, trade union leaders said that calling a general strike would be "the last resort". It was not clear how many workers would join strikes and the general "day of protest" set for March 28, but if rail, metro and air transport workers joined forces, it could cause widespread disruption.

Students are continuing strikes and blockades at schools and universities. Some 60 universities remain disrupted by student protesters, who announced last night that they would take to the streets again today and on Thursday.

The peaceful protests which boiled over into rioting in Paris on Saturday night claimed their first serious injury. A 39-year-old trade union member slipped into a coma after he was injured when youths clashed with police in Paris's Place de la Nation. The sud-PTT union said the man had been "violently trampled by a police charge". A police investigation has begun.

Rallies can make or break governments. Protests in 1995 undermined the then conservative prime minister, Alain Juppé, who lost elections two years later.

Mr de Villepin's measure, the contrat de première embauche, or CPE, aims to curb youth unemployment by paradoxically making it easier to fire workers under 26. He hopes this will spur employers to take young people on, knowing they will not need to offer long-term security. But critics within his own ruling UMP have dubbed the CPE "comment perdre une élection", or how to lose an election, reports Guardian Unlimited.


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