Jacques Chirac announces plans to replace employment law

President Jacques Chirac announced plans Monday to replace an employment law that triggered massive protests, bowing to intense pressure from students and unions and dealing a blow to his loyal premier in a bid to pull France out of crisis.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who devised the jobs law, had faced down the protesters for weeks, insisting the "first job contract" was necessary to reduce high unemployment rates among French youths, by making it easier for companies to hire, and fire, young workers.

Chirac's office said the president, acting on a new proposal from Villepin, "decided to replace" a key provision of the law with a measure aimed at "youths in difficulty."

A somber Villepin then made a brief statement on national television.

"I wanted to act quickly, because the dramatic situation and the despair of many youths demanded it," he said, explaining the original legislation.

Many youths and unions feared the contract would damage coveted job security, but Villepin said he had sought a "better balance ... between more flexibility for the employer and more security for workers."

"This was not understood by everyone, I'm sorry to say," he said.

Chirac enacted the disputed law earlier this month, but immediately suspended it to give governing conservative lawmakers the chance to meet with unions and look for a way out of the crisis.

A new plan emerged after the talks last week, and Villepin said it would be presented to parliament later Monday.

Unions were expected to make their own announcement Monday about whether to stage more of the protests and strikes that have shut down universities and tangled traffic in recent weeks, and cast a shadow on what is likely to be Chirac's last year in office, reports the AP.

I.L.