Chirac faces key decision that could end jobs law crisis but crush his premier

President Jacques Chirac, juggling the demands of outraged students, frustrated lawmakers and his loyal premier, faces a delicate decision Monday on how to finesse a contentious youth employment law to pull France out of crisis.

Calls mounted Sunday for Chirac to jettison the most inflammatory part of the law, a new job contract that would make it easier to fire young workers. Many warned that only a withdrawal would quell wildcat protests that threaten to spin beyond the control of unions and student groups at the forefront of the two-month-old protest movement.

"They should put an end today to this vaudeville," the leader of the centrist UDF party, Francois Bayrou, said Sunday on France Inter radio.

France is a country "adrift, of rulers who no longer hold the helm," he said. He suggested holding early presidential elections instead of waiting until next spring to replace the "decomposed" leadership.

While protesters bounded onto the court at a Davis Cup tennis tournament and staged a sit-in at a busy supermarket in weekend demonstrations, key players in the governing UMP party met to work out a compromise plan, based on last week's talks with labor leaders.

Chirac kicks off the workweek with what promises to be an intense and potentially pivotal meeting Monday morning with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and the UMP leaders who led the talks with unions. After that, the president will decide what to do with the law, according to his aides.

Based on that decision, unions were to make their own announcement Monday on whether to stage more of the protests and strikes that have shut down universities and tangled traffic in recent weeks and cast a shadow on what is likely to be Chirac's last year in office.

No solution will please everyone.

Many predict Chirac will replace the contested article with another type of contract for young people that would satisfy unions. But that would effectively bury the job contract that Villepin so fiercely defended, and be tough for the headstrong premier to swallow though he insisted last week that he is not ready to resign.

Villepin devised the law to get more young people in the work force as part of broader reforms to drag France into the global economy and shrink massive youth unemployment, but critics say it punishes young people and attacks cherished labor protections.

Their protests have paralyzed many schools, and some students have had enough. "Make Love, Not Strikes," read a placard as a few hundred college and high school students circled a Paris square Sunday in a protest demanding that schools reopen.

Chirac appeared to be seeking to balance the ambitions of Villepin and Sarkozy, an energetic presidential hopeful who has distanced himself from the unpopular law and has sought a starring role in ending the crisis.

Sarkozy adviser and former education minister Francois Fillon said Sunday that he hoped that a compromise deal would be reached and could be debated in parliament as soon as this week before lawmakers leave for spring recess April 17.

Chirac sought to defuse tensions late last month when he announced he would sign the law but order modifications. Students and unions scorned the move and continued their protests. But now that spring break has begun and unions have had a chance to speak their mind, many are hoping an end to the showdown is near.

In any case, the episode will leave its scars. A new poll shows that 85 percent of French people think the crisis has weakened the 73-year-old Chirac, who has ruled France for 11 years. The poll was conducted by the CSA polling agency last week among 1,005 respondents and gave no margin of error, reports AP.

O.Ch.