All eyes on Jacques Chirac, to finally speak to the French about disputed jobs law

French opposition groups "solemnly" asked President Jacques Chirac to back down Friday as a crisis over the government's divisive new jobs law reached a make-or-break point.

Chirac, confronting one of the toughest tests in his 11-year presidency, makes a televised address to the nation at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT).

He was expected to announce either that he has decided to enact the law risking more public fury or some sort of compromise that could amount to a disavowal of his faithful prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.

The law's most contested section will create a new job contract, known as the CPE, that allows a two-year trial period for workers aged under 26 during which companies can fire them for no reason.

The government says the flexibility will encourage hiring and dent sky-high youth unemployment. Students, joined by labor unions, fear it will erode job security and have led strikes, blockades of schools, roads and rail stations, and massive street marches at times violent. Unions have called for another day of strikes next Tuesday.

On Thursday, a council of experts ruled the law constitutional, leaving Chirac with the tough choice of what to do next. Unions and opposition parties urged him not to enact the jobs contract.

Chirac "would carry a heavy responsibility by putting the law into effect. It would be an unacceptable show of force," 11 groups including the Socialist and Communist Parties said in a statement Friday. They "solemnly" asked the president "to pull the CPE to begin talks with unions, then come back before parliament."

The crisis has cast a shadow over what is likely Chirac's last year in office and has badly wounded Villepin, his protege and supposed preferred successor.

None of Chirac's choices is easy:

Enacting the law could trigger even bigger protests, possibly more violence and a protracted social battle. It could also widen cracks within Chirac's governing conservative majority.

Sending the law back to parliament would be seen as a failure for Villepin and could prompt him to resign, leaving Chirac's governing party drifting just a year before national elections.

If he proposes changes to the law or offers talks with labor leaders, unions are unlikely to bite since they want the law withdrawn entirely before they will negotiate.

Lawmakers and government officials speculated that Chirac would push through the law, standing by Villepin as he has throughout the crisis.

Unrest continued Friday, with more than 150 students blocking a road to a school campus in the southeastern city of Marseille and waving banners. One urged Chirac: "Think tonight. Don't make a fuss."

Hundreds of high school students invaded a train station and blocked the rails of high-speed TGV train line in the south Paris suburb of Massy, according to the office of Socialist lawmaker Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Many youths 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.

"The message from the young people is one of incomprehension: How to find their place" in an increasingly globalized world, Finance Minister Thierry Breton said. "They are all legitimate questions that require answers", reports the AP.


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