French prison guards block over 125 prisons, risk sanctions
PARIS (AP) — French prison authorities warned Wednesday that protesting prison guards were risking fines or sanctions on the movement’s 10th day, with actions at 129 prisons.
Guards seeking improved working conditions and better safety measures set up picket lines or blocked prison entrances. Guards at 16 prisons “put down their keys” — meaning they refused all work — a move which triggers a demand for police and gendarmes to do the guards’ job, a Prison Administration official said.
The official, confirming French press reports, said that letters sent to prison directors laid out possible financial or disciplinary sanctions against protesting personnel, including job suspensions of five to 15 days. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and could not be identified by name.
The official said sanctions were not automatic and could be handed out but then “suspended” and would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Prison guards are forbidden from going on strike, and the possibility of issuing suspended sanctions appeared to be a tactic to soften the blow. It was not immediately known whether any prison directors had decided to levy sanctions against protesting personnel.
“Sanctions won’t stop us,” the top union representing prison guards, UFAP-UNSA, said in a statement on its website. It firmly condemned “these old-school methods, scandalous and unacceptable.”
The current nationwide movement, growing increasingly tough, was the largest in years, with the majority of France’s 188 prisons affected to various degrees.
The protest was fluid, changing even hour by hour. Guards at 10 more establishments joined the protests during Wednesday, raising the number of prisons affected from 119 to 129.
The Prison Administration insisted it remained open to negotiations — even after two failed rounds of talks this week between union leaders and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet. Tuesday’s talks lasted only an hour.
The letters warning of sanctions were sent out because security is being compromised by the protest movement, the corrections official said, adding that calling on police and gendarmes, and diverting them from their essential tasks, “cannot go on indefinitely.”
After 10 days, “the movement has an impact,” the official said.
The protest had threatened to disrupt the first trial related to the deadly Islamic State attacks on Paris in 2015. About 200 guards protested early Wednesday outside the Fresnes prison south of Paris, where Jawad Bendaoud, who is accused of helping two of the attackers, was held.
Bendaoud was eventually allowed to travel to appear in a Paris court after police forces cleared the prison’s main entrance.
Guards want better wages and enhanced security measures, notably for radicalized prisoners, in addition to more jobs promised by the government.
Attacks in about a half-dozen prisons — including by Muslim inmates suspected of being radicalized — have fueled guards’ demands for improved working conditions.
Officials say some 4,000 acts of aggression against guards take place each year.
The latest protests were triggered by a Jan. 11 knife attack on three prison guards by high-profile prisoner Christian Ganczarski. A German who converted to Islam, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his involvement in a 2002 attack on a synagogue in Tunisia that left 21 people dead. He is suspected by the United States of providing critical support to Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sanuel Petrequin in Paris contributed.