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French unions press for law repeal

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Student and trades union leaders said they had set the government a deadline of April 17.

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PARIS, France (CNN) -- French union leaders have said they will press for a full repeal of a controversial new labor law in talks with the government to try to end the nationwide protests it has sparked.

Unless their demand was met by April 17 -- when parliament adjourns for Easter --they would call more strikes similar to action on Tuesday which saw more than a million people take to the streets.

Trades unions and student leaders are expected to meet Wednesday with representatives of France's ruling UMP -- Union for a Popular Movement -- party. (Watch how pressures are building in France -- 2:38)

They believe they are bargaining from a position of strength because of massive demonstrations across France on Tuesday -- the fifth "day of action" against the law.

Some action continued Wednesday causing disruption to road, rail and postal services.

The law, signed Sunday by French President Jacques Chirac but not yet implemented, would allow employers to hire and fire workers 26-years-old and under for any reason during the first two years of their first job contract.

In signing the law, Chirac said he wanted it amended immediately to shorten the period when workers could be fired to one year and to require employers to tell workers why they are being fired.

The French parliament must still debate and pass those amendments to the "first jobs contract" law or CPE, as it is called in French.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proposed and rammed the law through the French parliament with little debate following riots last fall.

Those riots were staged by young people who said they had little or no hope of finding jobs, and Villepin said France had to do something to address the aspirations of young people.

Because of strong worker protection laws, workers in France are difficult and expensive to fire. As a result, employers are reluctant to expand their payrolls and unemployment in France remains around 10 percent.

Unemployment among young people has averaged 23 percent. In the poor neighborhoods of many French cities the unemployment rate among young people has topped 50 percent.

But young workers, like the thousands who protested Tuesday, claim the law unfairly discriminates against them.

Chirac has attempted to cast the law not only as an attempt to cut unemployment but as a demonstration that French society can change to meet the demands of a global marketplace.

Many French economists doubt that the generous social welfare system -- under which the taxes on the wages of young workers pay for the benefits of older workers and retirees -- can be sustained in the future.

However, that debate has, so far, been lost in the uproar over what is being seen as strong-arm tactics by the UMP, which has a majority in both the Senate and National Assembly.

The demonstrations have galvanized the left wing in French politics, giving the Socialist Party a popular focus after years of domination by right-wing politicians led by Chirac.

CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley said the furor over the new law was causing disquiet among France's business sector.

It was also proving politically damaging for Villepin, allowing Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to strengthen his standing.

"For Sarkozy, it's a deciding moment. Villepin, who drove through this law has really been deserted by President Chirac, but it is very much in the court of Nicolas Sarkozy now," he said.

"We've had complaints from business leaders that this row over the labor laws is threatening the French economy, which was already threatened by the riots last year," he said.

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