The case of a union leader who refuses to submit a sample of his DNA to authorities in the northern city of Amiens has become a rallying call for the French left as the country gears up for the presidential elections in April.
Four presidential hopefuls personally showed their support for Xavier Mathieu on Wednesday, who in 2010 was convicted for participating in the ransacking of a public building during a protest against job cuts at tyre-manufacturer Continental, and for which he was fined 4,000 euros.
Mathieu said he participated in the protest but denied having destroyed any property.
After his 2010 conviction, Mathieu refused to submit a saliva sample that would have allowed authorities to keep his DNA on file. Under French law, people found guilty of certain crimes are required to submit to this form of data collection. The labour leader protested, arguing that he would never allow his DNA to be filed among those of serial killers and child molesters.
Mathieu was already acquitted in June 2011 for refusing to submit to DNA sampling, but state prosecutors appealed the case and he was back in court Wednesday. On Monday he denounced what he called “the obsession” of a government which “two years after the conflict, continues to persecute those who had the courage to fight layoffs”.
Symbolic battle for the left
Eva Joly (Green party), Jean-Luc Melenchon (Left Front), Nathalie Arthaud (Worker’s Struggle) and Philippe Poutou (New Anti-capitalist Party) lined up in front of the court of appeals in Amiens Wednesday to back Mathieu.
François Hollande, Socialist Party candidate and frontrunner in the election, was the only candidate on the left who declined to appear alongside the unionist. The Socialist Party said that a local senator would officially represent the political group at the gathering.
In 2009 Mathieu became the emblematic leader of the Continental labour battle and the “Contis”, as the workers become known in France. The plant in northern France was closed leaving 1,120 people unemployed and a community devastated. However, a heated and unrelenting campaign by workers saw them collect 50,000 euros in severance.
On April 22, 2009 around 200 Continental workers invaded a regional government building, breaking windows and trashing offices to protest what they said was the government’s lack of commitment in protecting their jobs.
The story of the “Contis” fighting back has since become a symbolic battle for the left.
Election to be won on centre ground?
According to Florence Faucher, director of research at the National Foundation of Political Science in Paris, there is little motivation for Hollande to appear alongside other candidates farther to the left.
“The position of the far-left parties is what it usually is, and that is to exert pressure on the Socialist Party candidate to be more on the left. But the elections are won in the political centre, so appearing farther on the left is not helpful to Hollande,” Faucher said.
Speaking on RTL television hours before his trial, Mathieu said he was disappointed the Socialist candidate Hollande would not personally appear in Amiens. “It’s sad, but it’s their choice… [Continental workers] have been the symbol of the working class struggle for the past three years.”