France orders police to watch labour as tensions rise
France's Socialist government has ordered police to boost surveillance of labour movements as the interior minister warned Tuesday that rising tensions over job cuts could lead to a "social explosion".
Waves of cutbacks at top companies -- from automakers PSA and Renault to flagship airline Air France -- have raised fears of France returning to an era of disruptive strikes and radical labour action.
The latest anxiety came on Tuesday with a deadline for bidders to propose new investment to keep the bankrupt Petroplus oil refinery northwest of Paris alive and save some 470 jobs.
President Francois Hollande's Socialist government has sought to rebuild the strained ties with unions that marked right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, but on Tuesday labour activists were reacting with fury to news of the police order.
The head of the influential CGT union, Bernard Thibault, warned authorities that increasing surveillance would only boost tensions, saying a higher police presence would "in some situations be seen as a provocation".
Tensions have already boiled over at PSA's Aulnay plant in the Paris region, where four strikers were laid off late last month after allegedly assaulting a bailiff sent to evaluate damage to the site.
With tempers flaring, the SDIG police intelligence service was on January 30 ordered to "closely" follow developments in troubled companies where labour unrest could break out.
"In an economic downturn... it is important to closely monitor the situation in vulnerable companies or sectors," said the order.
It called for police to monitor plans for labour actions and watch out for "threats to production in case of the radicalisation of the conflict."
Interior Minister Manuel Valls defended the police on Tuesday, saying threats to public order needed to be monitored.
"There is anger in society from the consequences of the economic and financial crisis -- job insecurity, unemployment, redundancy plans," he told BFM-TV.
"Today what we are seeing are less social movements than social implosions or explosions," Valls said. "There must be a careful analysis of this."
But unions and left-wing groups said police pressure would inflame tensions and accused the government of siding with corporate bosses.
An increased police presence "ends up being seen as protecting employers, as if the workers are systematically at fault," Thibault of the CGT said.
"The best way to not have an 'explosion' or social tension is to adequately resolve the problems faced by French society," he said.
The far-left Workers' Struggle (LO) party also denounced Hollande's "allegedly left-wing government", saying the police order made it "the henchman of the employers".
France has a long history of labour conflict and previous general strikes -- including in 1995 against public-sector cuts and in 2010 against pension reforms -- paralysed the country for weeks.
Since taking office in May, Hollande's government has struggled to deal with increasing unemployment and a stagnant economy, while trying to keep its promise of balancing France's budget by 2017.
Companies have blamed the country's strict labour laws for its declining competitiveness and the months since Hollande's election win have been marked by job cut announcements affecting tens of thousands of French workers.
© 2013 AFP