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Raucous scenes as Air France ‘shirt-ripping’ trial opens

Air France union members support the defendants and ask for their discharge, as a trial over rowdy scenes a year ago in which an Air France executive had his shirt ripped is being held in court on September 27, 2016 © AFP / Philippe Lopez

Bobigny, France, Sep 27 – Cheers and jeers marked the start of the trial on Tuesday of 15 people over a confrontation in which Air France workers angry over planned layoffs left two executives with their shirts shredded.

In the first day’s testimony accused workers claimed they had been “convicted in advance” over the October 2015 attack, while one of the executives talked of the “humiliation” of having his shirt ripped off in public.

The trial over the incident, which made headlines worldwide, opened in a packed courtroom outside Paris with raucous scenes among backers of the defendants.

Five of the defendants are charged with “organised violence” and face up to three years in prison and a 45,000 euro ($51,000) fine if convicted in the two-day trial.

Air France executive Xavier Broseta escapes from angry employees during a 2015 protest in Roissy-en-France © AFP/File / Kenzo Tribouillard

The other 10 face lesser charges over the confrontation, which arose from a dispute over plans to cut 2,900 jobs under a restructuring plan that the airline has since scrapped.

“We’ve always been treated as guilty, they’ve convicted us in advance” on the basis of incomplete video and photo evidence, said Fabrice Lhermitte, one of the accused.

The court viewed a clip from footage of the incident in which a worker can be distinctly heard threatening human resources boss Xavier Broseta: “You’ve got millions, you’re going to pay.”

Union activists at the trial cheered, while, banging his gavel, the judge warned the defendants’ backers: “No demonstrations, no protests or I will have the court cleared. This is not a show!”

The court deliberated over whether the union activists had the right to break down the gate of the perimeter fence at the company headquarters near Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport.

The defence argued that the gate was normally open, and that padlocking it on the day of the incident was a “provocation”.

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– ‘Humiliation’ –

After crashing through the fence, dozens of workers broke into the conference room where management was unveiling the restructuring plan to the company’s works committee.

The director of human resources of Air France, Pierre Plissonnier (L), and Air France executive Xavier Broseta, walk away from demonstrators protesting in Roissy-en-France, on October 5, 2015 © AFP/File / Kenzo Tribouillard

As well as Broseta another executive, director of long-haul operations Pierre Plissonnier, had his shirt and jacket torn in the incident.

“It should be recalled that I am a victim,” Plissonnier told the court.

The white-haired executive described “the humiliation” embodied in the pictures of him scrambling bare-chested over a fence, which he said had been viewed 1.4 billion times around the world.

Broseta fell to the ground at one point as he was trying to escape the mob, while guards employed by the company were also injured in the melee.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the defendants, whom he branded “rogues”, should be given stiff sentences.

Air France’s lawyer Dominique Mondoloni said Monday that the defence would seek to “transform the perpetrators (of the violence) into victims and the victims into perpetrators.”

– The bigger picture –

Defence lawyer Lilia Mhissen, taking on six opposing lawyers representing the aviation giant, said she hoped her clients would “not be judged on the basis of video clips that last a fraction of a second” but on the bigger picture.

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Theater performers hold shirts near Bobigny courthouse on September 27, 2016, where a trial is being held over rowdy scenes a year ago in which an Air France executive had his shirt ripped © AFP / Philippe Lopez

At least two of them “clearly acted to protect Mr Broseta and Mr Plissonnier”, she said.

“If they had retrieved all of the video images… the story would have been different.”

Some Air France workers observed a strike on Tuesday in solidarity with the defendants, which the company said did not affect operations.

The hardline CGT trade union, which spearheaded sometimes violent protests earlier this year against France’s controversial new labour law, led a rally of some 300 union members outside the courtroom.

One of them, Mahchid Modjaverian, said the trial amounted to “the criminalisation of union action”.

“They can’t take the right to protest from us,” she told AFP. “It is engraved in the marble of the constitution.”

Air France-KLM 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.

Air France, which employs around 55,000 people, still faces tensions with pilots and flight crews who staged strikes in late July.

The airline also 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 21 months.

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