French Senate approves jobs measure to replace one that caused nationwide protests

Parliament's upper house approved a fast-track revision Thursday to a divisive youth jobs plan that brought masses to the streets, completing an embarrassing about-face for French President Jacques Chirac's government.

In another sign that the two-month-old crisis was winding down, police on Thursday dismantled metal barricades that were erected last month outside Paris' famed Sorbonne University after student protesters staged a sit-in for several days. But pockets of resistance remained. A small group of students invaded a Bordeaux television station and tried to get airtime to demand extra concessions from the government.

The Senate voted 158-123 in favor of the new measure, largely on support of Chirac's ruling conservatives. The National Assembly, the lower house, approved it a day earlier. The measure now goes to Chirac, who has 15 days to sign it into law, and is widely expected to do so.

The revised bill came after the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin backpedaled on a bolder initiative that sparked massive street protests and university sit-ins across France.

The vote alters an equal opportunity law enacted earlier this month, by stripping out the contested "first jobs contract" and inserting enhancements to existing jobs programs instead.

The compromise, hammered out between unions and governing party lawmakers, includes training programs and internships for disadvantaged youths.

Students and unions, whose weeks of demonstrations, strikes and other protests forced Chirac's hand, had vowed to remain vigilant until the compromise plan made its way through parliament.

Under pressure from the streets, Chirac on Monday scrapped the contract, which had been designed to combat sky-high youth unemployment in France. The protest movement has dwindled dramatically since then.

But in southwestern Bordeaux, students stormed the local office of France-3 TV and attempted to interrupt an evening news program, but the network switched its programming instead. The protesters were hoping to press their demand on air that the government repeal the entire law.

The plan approved Thursday focuses on four new measures that extend existing laws and boost the government's role in the workplace, instead of decreasing it, as Villepin had wanted.

They include training for disadvantaged youths, such as those who rioted in largely immigrant big city suburbs last year. Some 160,000 youths would be affected by the new measures this year, at a cost of some Ђ150 million (US$180 million) to the state.

Villepin devised the "first job contract" as a way to inject flexibility into France's rigid labor market and encourage job creation by making it easier for companies to hire and fire young workers. Opponents feared it would erode the job security French workers covet, reports AP.

O.Ch.