France may ban labour law protests after violent episode

Attack on Necker children’s hospital dismays authorities and alienates public opionion

A man clad in a Darth Vader mask wields smoke flares during a demonstration against the French government’s planned labour law reforms in Marseille, earlier in June. Photograph: Getty Images

A man clad in a Darth Vader mask wields smoke flares during a demonstration against the French government’s planned labour law reforms in Marseille, earlier in June. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The extreme violence of Tuesday’s protest march against France’s new labour law has precipitated a showdown over the holding of two further demonstrations later this month.

This is the longest and most violent social crisis of the Hollande administration. Hooded youths wearing gas masks and hoods or helmets have burned cars and attacked police, banks and shops repeatedly since February. One brought a chainsaw to the most recent march.

But it was the attack on the Necker children’s hospital on the boulevard Montparnasse that most shocked the authorities and public opinion.  Fifteen plate glass windows were fractured by protestors throwing stones or pétanque bowling balls. Some wielded clubs or hammers.

Inside the hospital, “six serious operations . . . were taking place in rooms looking directly over the boulevard Montparnasse,” Prof Yves Aigrain told Le Figaro. “There were about 50 health workers and the operating teams could see stones flying and club blows through the four plates of glass separating them from the street.”

Health minister Marisol Touraine said that “some of the children being taken into the operating room were not yet unconscious”.

Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve noted that Mathieu Salvaing, the three-year-old boy whose father and mother, both police employees, were murdered by a jihadist on Monday night, was being cared for at Necker hospital when it was attacked.

Hollande reaction

French police are confronted by violence on three fronts:  from jihadists; football hooligans at the Euro 2016; and at protests against the labour law.

Patrice Pelloux, the emergency doctor who wrote a column for Charlie Hebdo where 12 people were murdered by jihadists, leans to the far left. But he too was outraged by the attack at Necker. 

“This is the first time I’ve seen a hospital attacked in France, ” said Mr Pelloux.  “It’s writ large on the façade:  ‘Sick Children’ . . . A symbol of humanism was attacked by people who claim to be defending the labour code.”

“What happened is perfectly unacceptable,” said President Francois Hollande said.  “We’re under the rule of law and we will always respect the right to demonstrate, but that must not lead to the destruction of public property.  We will not authorise this type of demonstration if guarantees are not given.”

Prime minister Manuel Valls blamed the security service of the communist CGT trade union for failing to prevent violence, referring to the union’s “ambiguous” attitude.

The prefect of Paris police, Michel Cadot, said some 40 CGT flags were seen among the 800 casseurs (literally “breakers”, meaning vandals or trouble makers) at the head of the march.

Mr Cadot also said that between 100 and 200 CGT members from western France threw paving stones at police on the Esplanade des Invalides. The CGT said their men were “gassed” and “provoked” by CRS riot police.

It took CGT leader Philippe Martinez 24 hours to condemn the violence, saying his union “bears no responsibility for what happened on the sidelines of the demonstrations . . . We’ve been telling the government for three months, ‘You must stop the casseurs ’.”

Mr Martinez claimed police had received orders “not to intervene against casseurs”, implying that the government hopes the violence will discredit the protest movement.

The CGT called Tuesday’s demonstration “a great success” and insisted that further marches will take place on June 23rd, while the Senate is debating the labour law, and on June 28th, when the Senate will vote. The final vote will take place in the National Assembly in mid-July.

Mr Hollande said bans will be considered on a case by case basis. The right wants all demonstrations outlawed. Mr Martinez said that would “endanger democracy.”