Riot police swinging truncheons rushed into the Bank of France before dawn Wednesday and forced aside a mass of striking workers to lead two besieged bank officials out of the venerable building.
The show of force, which, ironically, came on a day when workers throughout France were electing representatives to traditional courts that try to settle labor disputes peacefully, infuriated French labor unions and seemed to harden the nine-day-old strike.
It also reflected the poor state of relations between the labor unions and the conservative government of Premier Jacques Chirac.
Jacques de Larosiere, the former director of the International Monetary Fund who is now governor of France’s government-run central bank, said he had called on the police because the strikers were holding two bank officials against their will.
De Larosiere described what he called the confining of Deputy Gov. Philippe Lagayette and Director of Personnel Raymond Penaud by the strikers as “an extremely serious and unprecedented incident.”
“It was my duty to call a halt to such actions,” he said.
In his statement, De Larosiere said the raid was carried out peacefully, “without incidents.” But this was contradicted by the unions, the French press and the Fire Department’s emergency service. All reported that several strikers were injured in the raid, one seriously.
The 400 strikers, many of whom work at a plant that prints paper money, had arrived at the bank’s headquarters Tuesday afternoon to demonstrate their determination to continue their strike. Company officials in the building agreed to talk with union negotiators.
When these negotiations, which lasted past midnight, came to nothing, the strikers refused to leave the building and refused to let Lagayette and Penaud leave as well.
Riot Police Called
Union official Marc Mianney denied that the two men were held against their will, saying they could have left at any time.
But Lagayette said: “We were being held against our will. Back exits were blocked and the only way out was through a room filled with a hostile crowd.”
More than 200 riot police were called in at 3 a.m. and cleared the strikers away in 10 minutes.
After the police escorted the two officials out of the building, the strikers, who are demanding more pay and a halt to layoffs, returned to occupy the headquarters once more.
French labor unions issued angry statements against the government’s action throughout the day. The Socialist-leaning French Democratic Confederation of Labor called the police raid “an act of deliberate brutality.” The Communist-dominated General Confederation of Labor said the government’s objective was “to put the trade union movement of the bank on its knees.”
Bank Hurt by Strike
The strike began at the Bank of France’s mint at Chamalieres in central France but has spread to the bank’s other offices and mints as well. In all, two-thirds of the bank’s 17,000 employees are on strike.
The strike has made it difficult for the Bank of France to supply enough bills for the automatic teller machines that dispense bills throughout the country to holders of French credit cards. Officials also say that it has become difficult for the bank to monitor bank accounts properly.
The Bank of France, which acts somewhat like the U.S. Federal Reserve System, was founded by Napoleon in 1800 and is headquartered in a 350-year-old mansion in downtown Paris.
The angry confrontation at the bank took place on a day when union members throughout France were electing their representatives to what are known as the “Prud’hommes courts,” boards set up in 1806, also by Napoleon, to arbitrate labor disputes.
These results of these elections, which were last held five years ago, are looked upon as a reflection of the strength of the labor movement in France and of its rival trade unions. All indications during the day pointed to an extremely low turnout, which is taken as a sign of the decline of labor strength.