French lawmakers approve new youth jobs plan

France 's lower house of parliament on Wednesday approved a compromise youth jobs plan to replace a measure that triggered nationwide protests and plunged the country into crisis. Unions, whose protest movement forced President Jacques Chirac to scrap the law on Monday, have said they would remain vigilant until the new compromise plan is approved. The National Assembly voted 151-93 in favor of the plan, which now goes to the Senate.

Chirac appeared eager to put the debacle behind him. "All the youth should be able to return to class and prepare for exams," he said at a government meeting Wednesday, calling for a return to "order" after weeks of protests shuttered or disrupted universities and high schools nationwide. The compromise plan, worked out with unions and UMP members, includes training programs and internships for disadvantaged youths instead of the job contract that would have allowed employers to fire workers under 26 in the first two years without giving a reason.

Lawmakers from Chirac's ruling UMP party rushed to get the new plan passed before spring recess set to begin Friday. The four new measures easily passed the lower house, dominated by UMP members. The Senate may not address the measures until May, after the legislative spring break. Both the rejected contract and the new plan were part of a broader equal opportunity law, which remains in force.

The abandoned job contract's champion, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, had hoped it would get more young people into the work force and make the business world more flexible to help it compete with emerging economies. But opponents said it was badly designed and badly explained and that it attacked France 's hallmark labor protections. The new measures are an extension of earlier laws in place, and boost the government's role in the workplace instead of decreasing it, as Villepin wanted.

They include training for disadvantaged youths like those who rioted in largely immigrant big city suburbs last fall. Some 160,000 youths would be affected by the new measures this year, at a cost of some 150 million (US$180 million) to the state. Nationwide protests against the measure brought more than 1 million people to the streets. Although some students called for more protests to force the government to withdraw other reforms, only 2,300 protesters marched Tuesday in Paris .

Several universities remained shut or disrupted. Of the 62 universities not closed for spring break, only 31 functioned normally with four totally closed, the education minister said. The conflict seriously weakened Chirac and Villepin, who is believed to be the president's preferred successor in next year's elections. A poll by the Ifop firm released Tuesday showed both men with only a 29 percent approval rating. The poll of 1,009 people provided no margin of error.

Meanwhile, unions are refocusing their anger on another labor reform passed last year that makes it easier for small companies to fire new workers of any age. The head of the main employers' group, Laurence Parisot, defended that plan Wednesday, insisting on RTL radio that it was "completely different" from the disputed measure and had already created 400,000 jobs, reports the AP.

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