Fifteen current and former Air France workers went on trial Tuesday for alleged violence during a union protest last year at the airline’s headquarters that saw two company executives flee over a fence with their shirts ripped off.
The incident, caught on camera, was an extreme example of the often strained relations between French workers and their employers. The violence and this week’s trial come in the context of contested government efforts to reform national labor rules.
Dozens of Air France activists rallied in support of the defendants outside the courthouse in Bobigny, north of Paris, as the trial began.
Five Air France union members, who have since been fired, are charged with aggravated assault, and face up to three years in prison and a 45,000-euro ($51,000) fine if convicted. Ten Air France workers, who retained their jobs, face charges of property damage.
The violent protest took place last October during a crucial union-management meeting at the airline’s headquarters next to Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, where executives announced nearly 3,000 job cuts after years of belt-tightening at the airline.
A disgruntled crowd of union activists and other employees broke through an access gate to reach Air France headquarters. During a scuffle outside the building, two managers and several security guards were manhandled.
Under catcalls and boos, with protesters chanting “naked, naked,” and “resignation,” the airline’s human resources director Xavier Broseta was seen bare-chested, with a tie still around his neck but just a piece of sleeve around his wrist.
Meanwhile, the head of long-haul operations, Pierre Plissonnier, ended up with his shirt and suit jacket shredded. The two managers, under protection of security guards, managed to escape by climbing a fence.
The company filed a complaint for aggravated assault. Management and unions alike insist that the violence emanated from a small minority of workers.
At Tuesday’s trial, defendants said they forced the access gate open “for security reasons” because the crowd was converging on the Air France site, and accesses were either closed or too small to let everybody in. The defendants also said police were posted just next to the gate and didn’t stop them.
Air France lawyers argued the site initially approved for the union rally was outside the site, not within the airline courtyard - much less inside the headquarters.
Although the scuffle was unusually violent, relations between management and staff in France are often testy, with union activists sometimes destroying company property or briefly holding managers hostage - “bossnapping” it is often called - to make a point.
The shirt-ripping incident shocked many even in protest-prone France and worried the government, a big Air France shareholder, that it might damage the country’s reputation. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said “these acts are the work of thugs.”
In response, some unions and leftist politicians have denounced an increasing drive to criminalize trade union action, arguing that physical violence is a desperate response to extreme pressure from management on workers’ rights and jobs.
Air France has shrunk its workforce and cut costs over years of restructuring amid competition from low-cost and Mideast airlines. Its unions have gone on strike repeatedly, disrupting air traffic throughout Europe, and the pilots attend demonstrations in uniform. The Air France-KLM Group reported net annual profit in 2015 for the first time in several years.