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Sarkozy forced to slow down reform schedule as new French parliament convenes

Nicolas Sarkozy, racing to reshape France since he was elected president last month has postponed a university reform bill, apparently fearing the kind of student protests that plagued his predecessors.

The surprise move by the energetic president came the night before Tuesday's opening of a special parliamentary session he convened to pass a series of laws during the normally quiet days of summer.

The legislature is dominated by his conservative UMP party and its agenda for the next six weeks is packed: Sarkozy wants parliament to consider bills on reducing income taxes, strengthening punishments for repeat criminal offenders and requiring a minimum level of service during public transport strikes.

He also wants to allow French universities - now all state-run and nearly cost-free - more autonomy to select students and eventually charge substantial tuition fees. Sarkozy and some university presidents maintain that this is the only way to mend a crumbling higher education system and boost job prospects for French youth.

Many students fear the move is a step toward the commercialization of the open European university concept, and that it will squeeze out the underprivileged.

Sarkozy met with university officials Monday and with student groups and teachers' union leaders Tuesday. He had planned to present the university bill to his new government for approval Wednesday, so that it could go to parliament in the coming weeks.

Student leaders said they were not being given enough time to have their say in the draft law.

"Events of recent days prompt large concerns among students and a feeling of anger," the head of the influential UNEF student union, Bruno Julliard, wrote in an open letter to Sarkozy. "I ask you, in the interest of our university system, to start real discussions and to open up the calendar for adopting the law."

Sarkozy agreed, pushing back the bill's introduction to the government - but only by one week, until July 4.

Julliard welcomed the move but warned Tuesday that tensions remain. "We are on the verge of a crisis" if the current law is not amended, he said on France-Inter radio.

The proposed law will allow universities to opt-out from the national system, which sets budgetary and fundraising restrictions, mandates tuition and appoints professors. The universities will then be able to recruit students, hire professors and look for additional funding, whether in the form of donations or tuition.

These autonomous universities will also have their governing structure simplified, giving more power to the presidents and reducing the number of people on the governing councils. Student groups will see their representation cut on these councils, and business leaders will be invited to take part.

Julliard suggested there could be protests when the law is discussed in parliament in July, or in September when the academic year resumes.

Another national student group, PDE, said, "reform for university autonomy is necessary today so that universities can become more reactive and more competitive. Nevertheless, the ministry should not forget what the audience for this reform is: the student community."

The delay on the university bill is a reminder that Sarkozy's reform plans still have plenty of hurdles to overcome before they are enshrined in law.

Sarkozy's conservative UMP party has 321 members in the new parliament that convened Tuesday, compared to 186 for the opposition Socialists.

Tuesday's opening session concentrated largely on procedural matters such as choosing presidents for each party's parliamentary faction, as well as jockeying among the small parties for alliances.

While Sarkozy's majority is strong, he is determined not to repeat the debacle that met a minor labor reform for youth last year championed by Jacques Chirac's then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Villepin drew up the reform quickly without discussing it with labor leaders, causing outcry among unions. Then he rammed it through parliament in an unusual way to bypass Socialist resistance - even though the legislature was dominated by his fellow conservatives.

Students and unions, angry that the law would chip away labor protections but also at the way Villepin strong-armed it into law, staged several weeks of strikes and escalating protests that shuttered many universities nationwide. Chirac backed down and withdrew the sensitive part of the law.

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