French police clash with striking prison guards
French police fired tear gas to break up a picket line of striking prison guards outside Europe’s biggest prison on Friday as unions pressed a fourth day of strikes across France over security concerns.
The scuffles took place outside the Fleury-Merogis facility just south of Paris as prison guards protested after a string of brutal attacks that have focused a spotlight on security problems and radicalization inside often overcrowded French facilities.
Outside the entrance to the prison, which houses more than 4,300 inmates, around 150 striking guards had set up a barricade of burning tires and wooden pallets to prevent their colleagues from getting to work, an AFP correspondent said.
But a contingent of riot police quickly broke through the picket line, firing tear gas to disperse the demonstrators and allowing those that wanted to work to get inside as the protesters were held behind a police barrier, the correspondent said.
“The CRS (riot police) charged and fired tear gas at us but we tried to resist,” a 28-year-old guard who gave his name only as Sacha told AFP.
On Thursday, around 120 prisoners had refused to return to their cells after their midday walk in the yard before being brought back in with the help of intervention teams, France’s prison administration service said.
Six prisoners who are thought to have led the protest were sent off to the punishment block, a union source said.
Despite talks to resolve the issue that began Tuesday and pledges by President Emmanuel Macron to outline plans for an overhaul of French prisons by the end of February, the unions decided to continue the industrial action.
The strike began on January 11 after a German convict, a former top al-Qaeda militant, attacked three guards with scissors and a razor blade at a high-security prison in northern France.
On Thursday, guards at more than 123 facilities were “mobilized,” the UFAP-UNSA and the CGT unions said.
Figures provided by the prisons’ administration said 87 of the country’s 188 detention facilities — around 46 percent — had been affected to one degree or another by the strike action.
Union officials have been holding talks with the Justice Ministry over longstanding complaints by guards of low pay, insufficient staffing, and overcrowding at prisons.
Guards now also warn that their safety is at risk following several attacks by inmates linked to extremism or under surveillance because of the risk of radicalization.