Three found guilty in Air France 'shirt-ripping' trial

Xavier Broseta is escorted shirtless by security staff after the incident in October 2015.
Xavier Broseta is escorted shirtless by security staff after the incident in October 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS
A shirtless Xavier Broseta tries to flee over a fence after several hundred employees stormed the offices of Air France in 2015.
A shirtless Xavier Broseta tries to flee over a fence after several hundred employees stormed the offices of Air France in 2015.PHOTO: AFP
Pierre Plissonnier, nearly shirtless, is helped over a fence by security and police officers, after several hundred employees stormed into the offices of Air France in 2015.
Pierre Plissonnier, nearly shirtless, is helped over a fence by security and police officers, after several hundred employees stormed into the offices of Air France in 2015.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Three former Air France employees on trial for ripping company executives' shirts during a dispute over layoffs were found guilty on Wednesday (Nov 30) in a case that highlighted the country's fraught labour relations.

The trade unionists were given suspended prison sentences of three to four months over the attack in October 2015 that left one executive naked to the waist and another with his shirt and jacket in tatters.

Appearing in court in north-east Paris, two others who faced the same charges of "organised violence" were acquitted.

The company said the sentences "enable us to close this sad episode", but lawyer Lilia Mhissen, acting on behalf of most of the defendants, said she would encourage them to appeal.

Images of furious activists chasing down the executives at the airline's headquarters on the edge of Paris made front pages around the world when the confrontation took place.

The protests were led by the hard-left CGT, France's largest union, over the airline's plans to cut 2,900 jobs.

Ten other former and current employees from the company were fined €500 (S$750) on Wednesday for damaging the company's property after they broke down a gate at the headquarters during the demonstration.

Pierre Plissonnier, director of long-haul operations at the airline, had told the court of his "humiliation" at seeing pictures of himself with a ripped shirt and jacket scrambling over a fence to escape the mob.

The court also viewed footage in which a worker can be heard threatening human resources boss Xavier Broseta before he was stripped to the waist in front of television cameras.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls had called for the defendants, whom he branded "rogues", to be given stiff sentences.

The attack came to symbolise the often fraught relations between company executives and trade union representatives in France and led to questions about the limits of legitimate protest.

Incidents of so-called "boss-napping", in which executives are held against their will during negotiations over job cuts, have spread in recent years.

In 2014, workers at a Goodyear tyre factory in northern France held two directors captive for close to 300 hours to try to prevent the closure of the plant.

The CGT has organised protests against the Air France trial and has accused the company and courts of criminalising union action.

"The justice system isn't independent. It's sided with the powerful," Miguel Fortea, secretary general of the CGT branch at Air France, told AFP on Wednesday.

The airline returned to profit last year after seven years of losses, but faces stiff competition from Asian and Gulf airlines as well as new, low-cost long-haul alternatives.

It still faces tensions with its 55,000 employees, particularly pilots and flight crews who staged strikes in late July.

Chief executive Jean-Marc Janaillac said during a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday that unions threatened strikes too often and stoppages had cost the company €130 million in 2016.

"We need to change the relationship between the trade unions and the negotiators for the company," he said.

The airline faces a downturn in bookings, notably by Japanese, Chinese and American customers, because of the string of jihadist attacks that have hit France over the past two years.

Vincent Martinez, one of the men convicted of violence on Wednesday, told AFP that the verdict was "not surprising" and that he would reflect on it before deciding whether to appeal.

Fired by the company like the others after the incident, he said that he "still wanted to be taken back by Air France." A legal case is under way.