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French PM Willing to Talk to Labor Law Protesters

Lisa Bryant

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has rejected chances he might resign over a new labor law that has sent hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets. But some experts believe the standoff has seriously damaged the prime minister a year before elections.

After the latest national demonstration this week over a youth labor law, Le Parisien newspaper ran this front-page headline: "What's de Villepin Good For?"

That question is increasingly being raised by pundits and critics - including the hundreds of thousands of French who have spilled into the streets to protest the legislation.

Spearheaded by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the law aimed to boost employment of young French workers by also loosening employer restrictions to fire them. Instead it ignited widespread fury, and suggestions by some that Mr. de Villepin should resign.

The prime minister ruled out stepping down, but he said he was open to dialogue with labor unions and students who have been leading the protests.

Mr. de Villepin said he wanted to to move quickly to push through reforms because he wanted to deliver results - to young people and to France in general. He is open to dialogue, but unions and student leaders must also work with the government.

Mr. de Villepin's popularity has plummeted in recent weeks. A survey published in France's L'Express magazine placed his approval rating at only 28 percent, a 20-point drop in just a few weeks, and 45 percent of those polled want him to resign.

Even if the prime minister does not resign, analysts like Henri Rey believe his political prospects are seriously damaged. That includes suggestions that Mr. de Villepin is eyeing a bid to succeed French President Jacques Chirac in next year's elections.

A researcher at the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Politics, Rey says there is now little chance of Mr. de Villepin running next year or in the future.

The job law has also divided the ruling center-right party. While Mr. De Villepin's mentor, Jacques Chirac, supports it with modifications, his top political rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, has distanced himself from the legislation.

Meanwhile France's leftist opposition is firmly against the law. Wednesday, lawmakers from the leading opposition Socialist Party introduced a bill in parliament to repeal the legislation.

Students and union leaders also want the bill to be scrapped, rather than amended. Wednesday, protesters briefly blocked several Paris railway stations. Students continue to blockade a number of schools around the country. They promise new demonstrations if the stand-off continues.

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