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All Eyes on Chirac as Youth Job Law Awaits Presidential Seal

French President Jacques Chirac is expected Friday to sign into law a contested youth jobs contract that has sparked weeks of sometimes violent protests, after a committee of experts removed the last legal obstacle.

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Riot police fight back protestors in Paris as France's highest court approved the job law

Late Thursday, the 10-member Constitutional Council -- which vets new laws -- rejected an argument by the opposition Socialists that the First Employment Contract (CPE) breached France's 1958 constitution.

Widely predicted, the seal of approval opens the way for the measure to be officially promulgated, and government officials said Chirac would risk more fury from the street by signing it quickly onto the statute book.

The 73-year-old president is to make a televised address on Friday evening to announce his decision, sweetening it with an offer of round-table talks with the alliance of unions and student groups that has organised the opposition, officials said.

The struggle over the CPE -- a contract which makes it easier to hire and fire young people -- has turned into one of the most serious crises of Chirac's 11-year presidency, and left his friend and ally Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin fighting for his political life.

Three weeks of escalating strikes and demonstrations reached a high Tuesday when more than a million people joined one of the biggest nationwide protests in recent French history.

Violence marred the end of the protests, with more than 500 people arrested. Three youths were ordered jailed for two months Thursday for violence against police during the Paris protests. Another day of action is planned for next Tuesday.

While Chirac expected to sign, concessions could be on offer

Algerien Frankreich CHIRAC VILLEPIN p178

Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin are under pressure

Government officials said that in order to assuage opposition anger, Chirac will offer top-level negotiations similar to the ones that helped end the May 1968 student uprising and worker strikes.

If these talks produced proposals for youth employment which could replace the CPE, then Chirac would make a commitment to implement them, the officials said.

But unions and students want Chirac to use his powers to send the CPE back to parliament, effectively killing it. Socialist leader Francois Hollande warned Chirac that he would be entering into a "trial of strength" if he signed the CPE into law.

"If the president's idea is to force (the CPE) through, promulgate the law and then open dialogue, that's what we've been refusing for the last two months," said Francois Chereque of the CFDT union.

Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT, France's largest union, warned that if Chirac promulgated the bill, it would "torpedo all possibility of discussions" and "aggravate the crisis."

Bruno Julliard, head of the main student union behind the protests, said it was now up to Chirac "to respond to the expectations of a large majority of the population and to force the government to withdraw."

More protests threaten railways and roads

Studentenproteste in Frankreich Paris

Paris in the spring time, 2006

Student groups maintained the pressure Thursday with wildcat actions across the country, blocking major highways such as the Paris ring road and invading the tracks at railway stations including the capital's Gare de Lyon.

Widespread disruption is predicted for next Tuesday, with several transport unions saying they will join the strikes. The latest were eight unions from Air France.

An open-ended contract that can be terminated without explanation during a two-year trial period, the CPE is designed to bring down France's high youth unemployment rate by making it more attractive for employers to take on young staff.

Law designed to help causing anger among French

It was passed by parliament two weeks ago as part of an equal opportunities law designed to help residents of high-immigration suburbs which were hit by last November's riots and where youth unemployment can top 50 percent.

But opponents say it is a step back from France's hard-won system of social protection toward what they see as the cut-throat labour policies that prevail in Britain and the United States.

Dominique de Villepin im Parlament

De Villepin is fighting for his political life

Government insiders earlier confirmed reports that Villepin warned Chirac this week that he would resign if the president sends the CPE back to parliament.

The two men have a very close personal relationship, dating from 1995 when Villepin became the new president's cabinet director, and several commentators have spoken of Chirac's growing dependence on the younger man.

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