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30 March 2006 Edition

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French unions increase the pressure

BY Justin Moran

Almost three million French workers took part in a national one day strike yesterday that saw mass demonstrations in over 40 cities and towns across the country. The largest protest took place in Paris where over 700,000 people mobilising in a demonstration that was largely peaceful despite isolated skirmishes with French riot police.

At least one third of state school teachers walked off the job, joined by postal, bank, gas and electricity workers and over three-quarters of universities remain disrupted. The transport system ground to a halt with huge swathes of the bus and rail networks completely shut down. Air France stopped all flights and many foreign airlines, including Ryanair were also forced to announce cancellations. No national newspapers were published and TV and radio was limited, with France's major news station playing classical music all day.

The protests are against proposals from the French Government to introduce new legislation, the CPE, which would allow workers under the age of 26 to be fired without explanation or protection for the first two years of their employment.

There are growing indications that the pressure of the increased size and radicalism of the protests is beginning to divide the government. Since the demonstrations began at the end of January the trade unions and radical left have been rapidly gaining momentum, buoyed by popular support among the electorate.

Leading members of the UMP, the party of embattled Prime Minister de Villepin, are increasingly calling for compromise and one of de Villepin's rivals for the party nomination in next year's Presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for the controversial law to be suspended pending talks with the unions.

Increasingly confident, the French left is set to keep up the pressure. Speaking in Paris on Tuesday, Marie-George Dresser, National Secretary of the French Communist Party (PCF), with whom Sinn Féin is aligned in the European Parliament said, "Everywhere in France, the extent of the demonstrations show the gravity of the crisis and the strength of the rejection of the CPE.

"The mobilisations are not weakening, they continue to be reinforced. Our people do not want this law, we do not want liberalism. The Prime Minister must immediately withdraw the CPE."

On Thursday the French Constitutional Council will vote on the constitutionality of the law and, assuming it is approved, the CPE will land on the desk of President Chirac, who will have 15 days in which either to pass the law or send it back to the parliament. French unions and student leaders are determined to make sure the CPE, and with it the Presidential ambitions of de Villepin, goes nowhere.

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