French courts have sentenced six workers to suspended sentences of between three and six months as a consequence of union protests in April against Continental's decision to close its tyre plant in Clairox.
More than 1100 workers had been employed at the plant and the closure announcement sparked protests by workers. The six workers, along with a seventh who was acquitted, all played a leading role in workers resistance to the closure.
They were charged with "destruction of property to influence the state" over damage to occupied local government offices.
The charges emerged from an April 21 protest, during which 200 Continental workers stormed the sub-prefecture office in Compiegne. It is estimated that some €50,000 in damage was caused during the protest, which was part of a four month campaign against the plant closure.
The campaign included 30 different protest actions and successfully secured payouts of €50,000 per worker.
At a court hearing on July 17, General Confederation of Workers (CGT) delegate Xavier Mathieu, who received the longest sentence, admitted the action was a "slippage" but "was not premeditated".
The sentences have drawn widespread condemnation from across the French labour movement. Following the sentencing, an impromptu protest was held in the town centre by 250 workers and supporters shouting "we are not thugs".
Mathieu told the crowd the sentence was "a prime example of the assault of a state that would deny the working class a voice".
He said: "It's disgusting, there is no justice in this country. I'm angry, [the workers] fought with dignity and the government has decided to make an example."
The protest was also addressed by Olivier Besancenot, a spokesperson for the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), who said he was "outraged" at the "provocation" of the sentences.
Workers's Struggle (LO) spokesperson Arlette Laguiller said it was unacceptable that workers were made to pay while the company's leaders brought ruin to the region.
French unions have been unanimous in their opposition to the sentences. The CGT described the trial as "profoundly unfair". It said that the government is "criminalising those who fight against the unilateral decisions of the shareholders", but it is "lenient, even colluding with management who impose their strategic decisions sacrificing plants and employees".
Workers' Force (FO) secretary general Jean-Claude Mailly warned against using the law to resolve social issues. The Solidarity Union (US) condemned the sentences, describing them as "revenge against activists who had led weeks of struggle". US said it sought to "make an example to deter others facing redundancy from fighting".
The convicted workers have been told they will also face civil proceedings in November to determine whether they will have to pay damages.
[Chris Latham's blog on the international labour movement can be read at Revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com.]