French trade union strikers invited rioting schoolchildren to join them today in an unprecedented turn of events in the current French crisis which led to violence and clashes between strikers, rioters and riot police.
The fourth consecutive day of rioting here in Lyon to protest the government’s retirement reform law began with a few hundred schoolchildren and students gathering in the city’s central square at around midday, throwing stones and bottles and taunting riot police who progressively blocked off most of the square’s exits with riot police and truck-mounted water cannons.
Water cannon in place during riots in Lyon 21 October 2010
Both press and police alike were then surprised to see a group of around 15 trade unionist representatives from one of the more radical French trade unions- the CGT – arrive. They said they had come to support the schoolchildren and students in their fight against the bill. Press reporters at the scene were heavily criticized by rioters for their alleged bias in reporting recent riots.
Shortly afterwards the stone-throwing became more intense and dangerous, which led to tear-gas being fired to disperse the rioters with the aid of Anti-Criminal-Brigade units which converged on the square to push the rioters into a corner, where they were surrounded. Police helicopters began to circle the zone at low altitude.
Tear-gas and rioters during riots in Lyon 21 October 2010
A parallel CGT-led trade union protest march arrived and was stopped from reaching the square by elite GIGN riot squad units, that which led to a stand-off with trade unionists on one side of the riot police and rioters on the other. The stalemate was broken by baton-wielding charges accompanied by tear-gas against the rioters who were forced to retreat back into the square and against trade unionists who were driven towards bridges leading out of the downtown area. Some CGT members were arrested. At the same time, police blocked off all remaining exits from the square.
Riot police arresting trade union members during riots in Lyon 21 October 2010
The square was totally cut off from access or exit, the trade unionists had been dispersed, and a pause ensued. The press as well as rioters were forbidden to leave, and I was told by a riot police section leader that their intention was to “let them stew” for a while before “filtering them out, tightening the noose” and arresting the instigators of the violence. One of the rioters, who identified himself as Ahmed, showed me the eye drops for babies he had brought along, saying that they lessened the effects of the gas.
Rioters in Lyon during riots in Lyon 21 October 2010
Reporters were then allowed to leave little by little after showing their press passes, and independent writers had to convince riot police by one means or another that they were not rioters. But all exits to the square for the rioters were still blocked at 6 p.m. and three hours later the sounds of police vehicle sirens could still be heard all around the city, with police helicopters still circling overhead.