French Jails at Brink of Explosion

Prison wardens block the Maubeuge jail during a nationwide protest in France on January 24.Prison wardens block the Maubeuge jail during a nationwide protest in France on January 24.

France’s overcrowded prison system is on the brink of mutiny after two weeks of unrest, the jails ombudsman said on Friday, with hardline labor unions vowing no surrender in a showdown with President Emmanuel Macron’s government.

The warning from the independent ombudsman follows a second fruitless attempt by Macron’s justice minister to buy peace with the wardens, whose work stoppages are slowly paralyzing prisons and pushing tensions with prisoners to boiling point, Reuters reported.

“If this crisis is not brought to an immediate end, there’s no telling what will happen,” said Adeline Hazan, who oversees conditions in France’s 188 jails, which house some 70,000 convicts, one of the largest prison populations in Europe.

“The situation is extremely tense ... we’re on the brink of a blowout.”

Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, accused of reacting too slowly to frustration among wardens after a spate of attacks by inmates, defended what she called a “significant” offer of bonuses and improved safety measures.

The proposal, which also includes plans to isolate many extremists and other religiously radicalized inmates from the rest of the prison population, was rejected by two of three labor unions on Thursday.

While Macron himself made a public declaration of confidence in Belloubet, the minister looked to be in difficulty after her proposal, the second in a week, was given short shrift.

The leader of the Force Ouvriere union, which has taken the hardest line, said there would be no let-up in the protests even if wardens were punished and their pay was docked for flouting a ban on strikes in the prison service.

Wardens want a change in their public service grade that would give them higher starting salaries, a demand that would cost around 80 million euros a year, FO’s Emmanuel Baudin said. “That’s nothing,” he said in an interview on CNews TV.

It compares to a government offer worth 30 million euros from Belloubet, whose hands look tied by Macron’s promise to keep a lid on public expenditure.

She told Europe 1 radio that union divisions were making matters more difficult. While the FO and CGT unions both rejected her latest offer, she had not yet had word from UFAP-Unsa, the largest wardens’ union.


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