Deadlock triggers crisis fear

French university presidents have warned that continued student occupations, despite a government climb-down on new employment legislation, will jeopardise the academic year.

Yannick Vallee, head of the Conference of University Presidents, called on students, and the Government, to act swiftly and responsibly to "get out of this crisis urgently". He said there was just time to save this university year but "if the blockages continue it will no longer be possible".

The Government this week dropped the most controversial aspect of the legislation. But some student unions - including the majority union Unef - are nevertheless planning to continue their protests until the Government votes out the legislation.

Students at Toulous-Mirail, Nantes, Aix-Marseilles and Rouen universities voted to continue the blockades that have disrupted lectures for weeks. Mr Vallee said measures being planned to make up the lost time included evening and Saturday courses, and postponing May exams until as late as September for universities that have been closed for up to eight weeks.

University presidents had appealed to students to resume classes during the Easter holidays to catch up on lost work.

But student groups were last week preparing to step up protests if the Government failed to withdraw its youth employment law and promised to maintain blockades of university premises over Easter.

Meetings took place between trade and student unions and MPs from the Government's UMP party after earlier concessions announced by President Jacques Chirac over the new law, the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE), which aims to make it easier for employers to hire and fire young people.

Further talks were due this week. Unions and student representatives insisted on total withdrawal of the law before they would call off their protests. Bruno Julliard, head of Unef, said it would "refuse to discuss adjustments" to the law.

"If we have refused the CPE, it is not to have a CPE mark two or three," Mr Julliard said.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, said the CPE would be replaced by "measures in favour of employment for young people most in difficulty".

Groups of students organised nationwide lightning occupations of railway stations, airports, road bridges, post offices and job centres.

The CPU said that a debate to strengthen links between university and employment, which Mr de Villepin announced last week, should be wide enough to "define an ambitious project for French universities".

* A controversial research reform became law last week, despite criticisms from scientists and opposition MPs. The law establishes a High Council for Science and Technology and a National Research Agency; promotes co-operation between research and higher education institutions; and supports technological innovation by private firms.

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