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Violent protests

jen/pfd, AP/AFP/dpaApril 23, 2009

In the wake of violent worker protests in France, rhetoric over social unrest in Germany is growing as the economic crisis continues to take its toll.

Continental employees burn tyres during a demonstration in Compiegne, north of Paris, Thursday March 19, 2009.
In March, French workers burned tires and set up barricades to protest against job cutsImage: AP

German presidential candidate Gesine Schwan added her voice to that of top union leader Michael Sommer late on Wednesday, when she warned that the ongoing economic crisis could unleash violent reactions from a distraught population.

"I can well imagine that in two or three months, people's anger will grow considerably," Schwan told the Muenchener Merkur newspaper. That's when some of the government's measures to cushion the blow from the recession - such as filling in the pay gap for people who are forced into shortened work hours - are due to run out.

"If there is no sign of hope for things to improve, then the mood can turn explosive," she added.

Gesine Schwan, May 2008
If aid measures run out, patience will as well, Schwan warnsImage: AP

Schwan's comments followed those of Sommer, who heads the Federation of German Trade Unions (DGB) umbrella group.

In an intervew with Germany's ARD television, Sommer warned of social unrest comparable to that in the 1930s - when widespread poverty paved the way for the Nazi regime's rise to power.

Fraying tempers in France

The projected economic contraction of up to six percent is comparable with data from the years 1930, 1931 and 1932, Sommer said.

Making the rounds of the German press, Sommer told the Nordwest Zeitung newspaper that if there are mass layoffs, it would be "a provocation for workers and the unions," indicating that "social unrest could no longer be discounted" in Germany.

The seams of civil restraint are already beginning to fray in France - a country known for frequent strikes and an active labor movment.

On Tuesday, a French court rejected a motion brought by employees of a factory run by Germany's Continental AG to block the plant's planned 2010 closure. Citing the steep drop in demand in the automobile sector, Continental announced in March plans to shutter the factory in Clairoix, north of Paris, which employs 1,120.

Smashed windows, destroyed equipment

Workers responded to the ruling by smashing windows and destroying equipment at the factory and regional administrative offices in nearby Compiegne.

Michael Sommer, head of the DGB union umbrella group
Sommer sees parallels with the early 1930sImage: DGB

On Wednesday, factory management distributed fliers reading: "We have no other choice but to suspend production as well as the whole of the site's activities until further notice."

French government officials condemned the workers' rampage, calling it "unacceptable."

Continental workers have drawn nationwide attention, meeting with top government officials at the presidential palace, burning tires in the streets of the capital and leading weeks of protests.

Their actions are part of a wave of increasingly radical employee movements to fight layoffs and cutbacks prompted by France's worst economic performance in 30 years. Workers have held managers hostage and blocked production at sites around the country.

On Tuesday, workers in southwest France released two bosses held for two days over plans to shut a subsidiary of American automotive company Molex.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon criticized what he called a small minority of "very violent" workers who are hijacking peaceful union mediation efforts. He called for charges to be laid against the rampaging workers, the AP news agency reported.