PARIS (AP) — The union activists chanted "Naked, naked" as they singled out two Air France executives and ripped off their suit jackets and shirts, and suddenly the French government found itself drawn into a violent labor dispute unusual even in a country with habitually nasty relations between management and staff.
With images of the shirtless executives splashed around the world, France's Socialist government worried about damage to the country's image.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls paid a hasty visit to the Air France headquarters on Tuesday, while top officials from the president on down condemned the violence. Facing a backlash, so did the unions.
"When you physically attack people, when you try to humiliate them in a crowd, that has nothing to do with the trouble a company is in," Valls said in a meeting broadcast live on French television. He stood with a phalanx of executives that included Air France's head of human resources, Xavier Broseta, who scaled a fence bare-chested and escaped under police protection along with the head of long-haul operations.
"These images hurt our country," said Valls, whose top adviser is rumored to be replacing Broseta in January.
"Dialogue matters. And when it is interrupted by violence, by confrontations that take an unacceptable form, it can have consequences on our image," President Francois Hollande said.
The Air France meeting Monday was intended to detail plans to cut 2,900 jobs and slash money-losing routes. The airline has not made a profit since 2008, although it has been steadily trimming losses in recent years, in part by voluntary departures and vacancies. Mayhem erupted as executives told staff that more cuts were needed.
The images of the shirtless executives fleeing in fear "say something terrible about France and that's how they will be interpreted," Geoffroy Roux de Bezieux, the vice president of the country's largest business organization, Medef, told France-Inter radio.
Pressure grew on the Air France pilots' union, which has forcefully fought the job cuts as well as the company's call to work longer hours for the same pay. But although Monday's violence was just a core of activists, a strike against the restructuring plan had broader backing.
"Labor unrest in companies is reaching a critical point," Philippe Evain, president of the main pilots' union, known as the SNPL, told Europe 1 radio. Evain said he was in the room when the two executives were singled out but saw nothing.
He blamed the company for negotiating in bad faith, describing its claim to open to alternatives as "a lie told to the French, to employees and to the government."
With France's unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent for five years and negligible economic growth, even people with steady employment fear for the future.
"Everywhere else in the world, there are layoffs ... and they don't cause this kind of problems" said Roux de Bezieux. "But in France, we are not creating jobs anymore. What counts for a dynamic economy is not the destruction of jobs, it's the creation of jobs."
Less than 8 percent of French workers belong to unions — among the lowest rates in the developed world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But all workers in a given industry are covered by agreements reached with its unions.
Hard-core activists have been known to destroy company property and briefly make hostages of executives — especially human resources managers.
And Air France, which counts the government as the biggest shareholder with a 17 percent stake, is a particular case: It is simultaneously a national emblem and a major employer, publicly traded and government-owned. Its unions have gone on strike repeatedly, disrupting air traffic throughout Europe, and the pilots attend demonstrations in uniform.
German rival Lufthansa is having similar problems competing with budget airlines on regional routes and with rich Gulf carriers on international ones. Lufthansa pilots have held regular strikes.
It's not clear who carried out Monday's violence at Air France. The company has filed a complaint for aggravated assault, but the management and unions alike insist that the storming of the meeting was a small minority of workers.
"Air France is in shock," Valls said, "And when Air France is in shock, all of France is in shock."