Fury as Air France ‘lynch mob’ to face trial

Five Air France workers will appear before court next month over the 'almost lynching' of two Air France execs. But should they really be punished by the law?

Fury as Air France 'lynch mob' to face trial
Demonstrators try to enter Air France headquarters during their protests last week. Photo: AFP

When two half-naked Air France chiefs were seen running from a mob with their suits and shirts having been ripped off, condemnation quickly followed.

While Prime Minister Manuel Valls labelled the perpetrators as “thugs”, President François Hollande denounced the violence saying it was bad for the image of the country.

Even traditional left wing unionists thought those protesters who had ripped off their suits of HR director Xavier Broseta and Pierre Plissonnier had taken traditional Gallic protest methods a step too far.

Laurent Berger, leader of the CFDT union, “condemned the undignified violence witnessed… without reserve and in the strongest fashion possible.”

Jean Claude Mailly the head of the Force Ouvriere union deplored the violence saying “we can fight against management without being violent. It’s not in our traditions”. 

But those same unions were outraged this week when police swooped early on Monday morning to arrest six men, whom they believed were behind the shirt ripping. Five of the workers will go on trial before the criminal court in Bobigny at a later date charged with group violence.

Normally when French workers take radical action to protect their jobs – like kidnap their boss or burn tyres across roads – it is rarely followed by any criminal proceedings.

Five Air France staff held over suit ripping gate
(Pierre Plissonnier is led away to buy a new suit. Photo: AFP)

It’s just seen as part of a labour dispute where almost anything goes – until last week it seems.

Even the French press talked of a line having been crossed when it emerged the six men had been lead away by police in front of their families;.

And the move has only worked to poison the atmosphere between staff and Air France as the company tries to work out how it will cut 2,900 jobs.

On Monday around 100 workers turned up at Charles de Gaulle airport to denounce the arrest of their colleagues.

“These are not yobs, they are not violent people. We have to stop saying that,” one protesting Air France staff member called Eric told Europe1 radio.

Politicians on the left were also furious.

“Arrested at home at 6am. Why? Just to humiliate them in front of their families,” said former housing minister and member of French Greens Cecile Duflot.

Many believe the five should be dealt with internally and not be sent before the courts as common criminals would be.

There is a view that authorities and particularly the government felt the need to act once the images of the execs made headlines around the world.

Most French 'understand' actions of strikers
(Air France's human resources director, Xavier Broseta, trying to escape Air France employees. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

France’s image is at stake after all, as Hollande said.

But magistrates have said there was nothing remarkable about police making early morning arrests, which is the normal and most practical procedure for police.

Philippe Marliere, professor of French politics at University College London, says any punishments handed out should take the wider context of the labour dispute into account and “the symbolic violence” being meeted out to thousands of employees faced with being jobless.

“It was just a lot of pushing and tearing off suits. I don’t think it was that serious. They have to take into context the wider situation, which is extremely bad for employees,” he told The Local.

“Instead of condemning or condoning the act we should try to understand why these workers resorted to this kind of thing.

“Almost 3,000 of them are about to be made redundant.”

So should the culprits be punished or should the law go easy on them given what was at stake?

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Air France, Hop! to cut 7,580 jobs

Air France management said Friday it planned to eliminate 7,580 jobs at the airline and its regional unit Hop! by the end of 2022 because of the coronavirus crisis.

Air France, Hop! to cut 7,580 jobs
An Air France plane lands at JFK airport in New York. Image: STAN HONDA / AFP

The carrier wants to get rid of 6,560 positions of the 41,000 at Air France, and 1,020 positions of the 2,420 at Hop!, according to a statement issued after meetings between managers and staff representatives.

“For three months, Air France's activity and turnover have plummeted 95 percent, and at the height of the crisis, the company lost 15 million euros a day,” said the group, which anticipated a “very slow” recovery.

The aviation industry has been hammered by the travel restrictions imposed to contain the virus outbreak, with firms worldwide still uncertain when they will be able to get grounded planes back into the air.

Air France said it wanted to begin a “transformation that rests mainly on changing the model of its domestic activity, reorganising its support functions and pursuing the reduction of its external and internal costs”.

The planned job cuts amount to 16 percent of Air France's staff and 40 percent of those at Hop!

With the focus on short-haul flights, management is counting mainly on the non-replacement of retiring workers or voluntary departures and increasing geographic mobility.

However, unions warn that Air France may resort to layoffs for the first time, if not enough staff agree to leave or move to other locations. 

'Crisis is brutal'

Shaken heavily by the coronavirus crisis, like the entire aviation sector, the Air France group launched a reconstruction plan aiming to reduce its loss-making French network by 40 percent through the end of 2021.

“The crisis is brutal and these measures are on an unprecedented scale,” CEO Anne Rigail conceded in a message to employees, a copy of which AFP obtained. They also include, she said, “salary curbs with a freeze on general and individual increases (outside seniority and promotions) for all in 2021 and 2022,” including executives of Air France.

The airline told AFP earlier this week that: “The lasting drop in activity and the economic context due to the COVID-19 crisis require the acceleration of Air France's transformation.”

Air France-KLM posted a loss of 1.8 billion euros in the first quarter alone, and has warned it could be years before operations return to pre-coronavirus levels.

Air France has been offered seven billion euros in emergency loans from the French state or backed by it, while the Dutch government approved a 3.4 billion euro package of bailout loans for KLM last week.

The group joins a long list of airlines that have announced job cuts in recent weeks.

Lufthansa is to slash 22,000 jobs, British Airways 12,000, Delta Air Lines 10,000 and Qantas 6,000.