Chirac Says He Will Sign Modified Youth-Jobs Law

French president Jacques Chirac tells the nation that he will sign a controversial new youths-job law, but that the time period in which an employee younger than 26 could be fired would be reduced to one year. Also an employer would be obligated to give a reason for any dismissal.

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French President Jacques Chirac told his nation today that he would sign a controversial new jobs law, but he promised to amend some of its key provisions. Large and sometimes violent protests against the law have consumed France for the last three weeks.

Eleanor Beardsley has the story from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

Chirac spoke to the French people on national television, saying that it was time to an end an untenable situation. He said his decision on how to handle the crisis was fair and just, and kept the country's national interest in mind.

President JACQUES CHIRAC (France): (Through translator) The parliament and the country's elected officials voted on this law and the Constitutional Council has just upheld it. In a democracy, this means something and must be respected. That's why I have decided to promulgate the law.

BEARDSLEY: Chirac went on to say that he had heard the cry of youth outrage and would modify the two most contested points of the law before signing it. The law is designed to encourage the hiring of young people by making it easier to get rid of those who don't work out. The two-year time period in which an employee under the age of 26 could be fired would be reduced to one year. And an employer would be obligated to give a reason for any dismissal, he said.

Andre Caspit(ph), history professor at the Sorbonne University, says he doesn't think this speech will be enough to end the crisis.

Professor ANDRE CASPIT (Sorbonne University): I think it's too late. The compromise would have been all right, I would say two or three weeks ago, but right now I'm not sure that a compromise will be enough.

BEARDSLEY: During the last month, the fight over the law has consumed France, closing schools and universities, filling the streets with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators and monopolizing public debate. It has become a symbol for everyone's struggle of the government versus the street, of the revival of the political left, of youth resistance to authority and of France holding on to its cherished social protections in a world of encroaching globalization. Economic historian Jacques Marseille says the uproar really had nothing to do with the new law.

Mr. JACQUES MARSEILLE (Economic Historian): (Through Translator) This situation is the culmination of several years of total incomprehension between the left, which has not wholly embraced the free market system, and the right, which backs down in front of every reform. We're in an explosive situation where part of France says no to everything now.

BEARDSLEY: All day today the country seemed to be on tenterhooks waiting for Chirac's decision on how to deal with the crisis.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BEARDSLEY: Students continued to block traffic and blockade schools in an effort to make their voices heard until the very end. At this Paris street market, jewelry sellers Nelly Celave(ph) and Denise Schloah(ph) say Chirac should have stepped in to end the situation a long time ago.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking French)

BEARDSLEY: We're supposed to be selling our jewelry out at the market, but no one is buying anything these days, they say. People aren't going out and spending money, they're anxious and worried so they're staying home.

For the French president, with record low approval ratings of 20 percent, much is riding on his speech. He had to rescue his prime minister while not backing down to the street, and pacify opponents to the law. While the success of tonight's intervention has still to be measured, union and student leaders who had demanded the law's total withdrawal, so far say they will go ahead with planned protests next Tuesday.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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