French union and student leaders set an Easter deadline Wednesday for the government to repeal its youth jobs law or face a repeat of the million-strong protests that have engulfed the nation.
Easter holidays in France are likely to be disrupted by industrial action and protests
The 12 groups, emboldened by protests Tuesday in which more than one million people poured into the streets, gave President Jacques Chirac's government until April 17 -- the Easter Monday start of parliament's spring recess -- to completely remove the legislation.
They said they were "ready, unless there is a rapid decision to withdraw the CPE (First Employment Contract), to decide on a new day of action."
Union leaders were to press the demand in meetings being held separately with Bernard Accoyer, parliamentary head of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), throughout the day.
President Jacques Chirac, whose government has been torn apart by the scale and handling of the crisis, called on all sides to ensure the talks were "constructive", according to a spokesman.
Masses of demonstrators -- police said one million and unions said up to three million people -- took to the streets Tuesday against the law, which makes it easy to fire young workers.
The main opposition Socialist party issued a separate call for the law to be rescinded before the parliamentary recess.
Bernard Thibault, leader of the main CGT union, said he would not give up until the youth contract was withdrawn in full. "It's absolutely not up to us to give up," he told Europe 1 radio.
Leaders call for protests to intensify
"We are not rioters, being jobless is our future"
Student leader Bruno Julliard called for protests and strikes that have shut down dozens of French universities to "intensify" in the coming days.
Conceived as a tool against youth unemployment which runs at 22 percent in France, the CPE is a contract for under 26-year-olds that can be terminated by the employer without explanation during a two-year trial period.
The measure has sparked nationwide protests, with opponents accusing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin of trampling on hard-won labor rights and of railroading it through parliament without proper consultation with unions and employers.
Wednesday's talks were arranged after Chirac offered an elaborate compromise last week -- ratifying the measure, then immediately suspending it pending a new law to amend its most contested provisions.
Emboldened by their protests, leaders of the student-union alliance refuse concessions on the CPE and want all trace of the hated contract written out.
The French press was scathing about Villepin's chances of surviving the crisis, which has fractured the government and caused anguished soul-searching about France's social model.
Prime Minister's head on the block
Dominique de Villepin: Student enemy number one
"What use is Villepin?" the daily Parisien headlined. An opinion poll to be published this week in L'Express magazine shows that 45 percent of the public think Villepin should resign.
In a sign of a shifting balance of power in the government, responsibility for organizing the new legislation was taken from Villepin and handed to his powerful rival, UMP chief and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Disruption continued Wednesday. Hundreds of youths blockaded access to an important wholesale market in the western city of Nantes; others took similar action on key roads in Rennes and Poitiers, the railway station at Chambery in the French Alps and a postal sorting centre in Toulouse, in the south.
Violence continues with neither side giving ground
Students give rail operators a new excuse for delayed service
Violence erupted in Paris and a number of other French cities Tuesday when gangs clashed with riot police who responded with tear gas. The protests were accompanied by strikes, but disruption was limited.
Laurence Parisot, the head of the French MEDEF employers' association, warned that the latest crisis -- coming just months after rioting gripped poor suburbs -- was posing a threat to the economy.
The image of France has also taken a hit, fuelled by television pictures of scenes of violence. Australia -- which had already warned its citizens about November's suburban rioting -- updated its travel advice Wednesday to caution against visiting areas where protests could turn violent.