Breakthrough in French prison standoff

The biggest union representing protesting French prison guards said Friday it had reached an agreement in principle with the government to end nearly two weeks of action to highlight security risks and poor pay.

Breakthrough in French prison standoff
A prison officer wears an Anonymous mask during a protest in front of the Lyon Corbas prison on January 25th, 2018. Photo: AFP

The Ufap-Unsa union said that new propositions from Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet were the “basis for a profound evolution in our prison system” and it would agree to end the protests.

However two other smaller unions, the hard-left CGT and FO, rejected the measures announced by Belloubet which include new equipment to manage Islamic extremists behind bars, including maximum security cells, as well as the creation of 1,100 new prison jobs.

The justice minister also announced a package worth 30 million euros in extra pay for guards who have faced a series of attacks from violent prisoners in recent weeks, which have been widely reported in France.

The action by the guards, the most significant in two decades, was the first major industrial dispute faced by the government under President Emmanuel Macron since his election in May last year.

Belloubet told Europe 1 radio on Friday that government was making “very serious offers”, while calling for “a sense of responsibility, an appreciation of the situation.”

France's prisons administration said 116 of the country's 188 jails were affected by the protests on Thursday, with guards at 42 facilities refusing to show up for all or part of their shifts.

Only about 60 prisons experienced work stoppages early Friday.

Conditions in French prisons have long been a source of anger among prisoners and guards, and an embarrassment for the state, with Macron once describing them as “disgraceful”.

Adding to the guards' grievances is the radicalisation of inmates who come under the sway of jailed Islamist extremists and jihadists.

French prisons have developed a reputation for being hotbeds of radical Islam that have turned out some of the jihadists behind a series of bloody attacks in recent years.

The protests began after a convicted Al-Qaeda extremist attacked guards at a high-security facility in the north of the country on January 11th with a razor blade and scissors, injuring three of them.

A series of other assaults occurred shortly afterwards, often by radicalised inmates.

“These people go to work every day, civil servants, fearing for their security or their lives. We need solutions which respond to this concern for working in safety,” Laurent Berger, head of the national CFDT union which does not have a chapter for prison guards, said Friday.



Prisons blocked across France after guards attacked by ‘radicalised’ inmate

Protesting prison guards blocked jails across France on Wednesday morning after two officers were left seriously wounded in an attack by a "radicalised" inmate. It's not the first time staff have been targeted by jihadist inmates.

Prisons blocked across France after guards attacked by 'radicalised' inmate
French prison guards protest after a previous attack by a radicalised inmate. Photo: AFP

Around 20 prisons were blocked across the country on Wednesday morning after unions representing guards called for action.

Protesting prison guards set fire to tyres and built barricades in front of the entrances to the establishments.

They vowed the no staff or visitors would gain access to the prisons as they protested to raise the alarm at the dangers they face on daily basis due to the number of radicalised prisoners.

“Colleagues want to go to work but we do not abandon them, we do not send them to die,” a local union leader at the Fleury-Merogis prison outside Paris, Thibault Capelle, told AFP.


The action follows Tuesday's incident when a “radicalised” inmate at a prison in northwest France seriously wounded two guards in a knife attack. 

He was later shot and injured in a police raid that also left his visiting partner fatally wounded.

Prisoner Michael Chiolo and his female partner had been holed up in the family-visiting area of the modern, high-security prison at Conde-sur-Sarthe 
in Normandy when police moved in and detained them, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on Twitter.

Both were shot and wounded in the operation and “the woman died” of her injuries, a source close to the case said, adding that Chiolo was less seriously wounded in the cheek.

Elite police units moved in some 10 hours after 27-year-old Chiolo wounded the prison guards with a knife which Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet suggested might have been smuggled into the prison by his partner.

“There is no doubt as to the terrorist nature of this attack,” Belloubet told reporters earlier.

Chiolo, who was serving a 30-year sentence, is thought to have become a “radicalised” Islamist while in prison.

He shouted “Allahu Akhbar” (God is Greatest) during his rampage in the family-visiting area, prison staff representative Alassanne Sall told AFP.

The latest violence comes as prison staff nationwide, who have been demanding better working conditions, have repeatedly staged protests on Tuesdays.


In January 2018, prison staff held three weeks of protests after a guard was attacked by a jihadist inmate at a high-security jail in northern France.

Experts and trade unions have consistently raised the alarm about the spread of extremism in French prisons, leading the government to build special facilities to house dangerous individuals who are sometimes held in solitary confinement.

The Conde-sur-Sarthe prison is one of France's most secure jails and does not suffer from overcrowding, unlike other facilities, according to Belloubet.

But despite having been identified as an extremist, Chiolo was not housed in a secure wing for radicalised inmates which was opened in September, she added.

The first “jihadist attack” launched from within a prison in France took place in September 2016, according to prison authorities.

A Moroccan, jailed for attempting to travel to Syria to join jihadists, attacked two guards with a knife at a prison in Osny, northwest of Paris, saying he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State.

Then in January 2018, a German Islamist extremist, Christian Ganczarski, jailed for helping organise an attack against a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, wounded three prison guards in a knife attack at Vendin-le-Vieil, northern France, prompting staff to demand better safety and working conditions.