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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 April 2006, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
French PM defends youth job law
Dominique de Villepin
The protests fuelled speculation about Mr de Villepin's future
French PM Dominique de Villepin has said he will battle on to the end to solve youth unemployment, and urged protesting students to resume studying.

He told his monthly press conference that it was time to "end the crisis" over his controversial youth jobs law.

Millions have demonstrated over the past few weeks against the law.

The unions have given the government until Easter weekend to withdraw the law or face a repeat of the recent general strikes.

Rejecting rumours that he was ready to resign in face of the protests, Mr de Villepin said the new law was a tool to bring down unemployment.

Mr de Villepin said that in underprivileged areas up to 50% of young people were jobless. The national rate of youth unemployment is more than 20%.

FIRST JOB CONTRACT
Contrat Premiere Embauche (CPE): A new work contract for under-26s allowing a two-year trial period
In that period, employers can end a contract without explanation
After two years, the CPE reverts to a standard full-time contract
Became law on 2 April, but amendments are expected - employers are being asked not to apply it yet

"The president of the republic has entrusted me with a mission and I shall conduct this mission to its conclusion," he said.

"It is time to put this crisis behind us, to restore calm and unity to the country," he said. "The immediate priority... is naturally to calm things down."

Looking tanned and remarkably relaxed, Mr de Villepin laughed off suggestions that he was thinking of resigning over the current crisis, says the BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris.

However, he avoided giving any direct answer on whether the controversial youth jobs law that sparked weeks of demonstrations would be withdrawn entirely, as the trade unions have demanded, she adds.

Blockades

France has been ablaze with speculation over the prime minister's future after he was effectively sidelined on this issue by his ambitious cabinet rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, our correspondent says.

As head of the governing UMP party, Mr Sarkozy is helping to lead the negotiations with the trade unions.

Some students and school pupils are continuing to blockade universities, as well as disrupting railway stations by staging sit-ins on the tracks.

Mr de Villepin called on them to get back to their studies while unions and the government hammer out a solution to the crisis.

Unions and students oppose the First Employment Contract (CPE) law which allows firms to sack youngsters without explanation during the first two years.




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