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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Unions Threaten Strike

PARIS -- French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was meeting with unemployed youths on Monday, as labor unions discussed whether to call for a general strike over a contested jobs law that has fanned massive protests and clashes.

Villepin was not prepared to meet the Monday evening deadline set by unions to do away with the "first job contract," a measure aimed at increasing youth employment. Critics fear it will hurt job security.

The embattled prime minister, in an interview published Sunday, said he understood the concerns, but urged students and unions to work with the government to tweak the law -- not scrap it. Quoted in Citato, a monthly for high schoolers, Villepin said he regrets that there was "misunderstanding on the methods" of applying the law.

With a new round of broad protests not expected until Thursday, back-channel negotiations were on tap for Monday. Villepin was meeting with corporate chiefs and unemployed youths to discuss job creation.

Unions have balked at talks over the measure, demanding that the government shelve it first. The parliament passed the law this month.

The debate looms large in the run-up to French presidential and legislative elections next year. Polls show the popularity rating of conservative Villepin taking a beating, and the opposition Socialists have vowed to revoke the measure if they return to power.

Socialist leaders on Monday urged conservative President Jacques Chirac to speak to the nation directly about the contract. Chirac must sign the law for it to take effect as anticipated next month.

Opponents were riding a swell of protest against the contract, culminating in marches across France on Saturday that drew at least a half-million people.

The largest march, in Paris, ended in violence and skirmishes between youths and police in eastern Paris, and on the Left Bank at the famed Sorbonne university. Cars, bus shelters and 10 shops were damaged, including a fast food restaurant and a clothing store.

Police said Sunday that 52 people were injured -- 18 of them demonstrators, with one protester hospitalized with a heart problem. A total of 167 people were arrested, 70 of them detained for questioning.

The jobs contract, passed March 9 by parliament, is designed to increase employment among workers under age 26. Critics say it would chip away at workers' rights and endanger job security.

Sixteen universities are on strike over the plan -- with students blockading entrances with classroom chairs and tables -- and classes at dozens of others have been disrupted.

Two polls released Sunday showed that 60 percent of respondents believe the government should scrap the measure. Opponents have offered few high-profile alternatives as ideas to help reduce high unemployment rate among young workers in France.

The contract is meant to encourage employers to hire, by easing workplace rigidities and allowing them to fire young workers during the first two years of employment without giving a reason.

France's work code contains rigorous standards for firing employees. But Villepin hopes to use the measure to lower the 23 percent unemployment rate among the nation's youths -- a figure that rises to some 50 percent in some depressed suburban neighborhoods where a wave of unrest and rioting erupted across France last fall.