Striking French firefighters start fires, occupy train station during protest (VIDEO)

© La Voix du Nord
Over 500 French firefighters set off fireworks and burned tires before storming and occupying a railway station in Lille in the latest in a series of escalating protests against the local council’s budget cuts.

Staff in full uniform gathered outside the fire station of the northern city at 10:30 a.m. Thursday morning, and launched a firework into the sky from a model fire truck to start off their procession. As they marched through the center of town holding union flags, more and more people joined the march.

Arriving outside the train station, the firemen then formed a cordon, while several started piling on tires, and setting them ablaze, to create an acrid smoke that enveloped the entire neighborhood. Local police, warned in advance about the demonstration, cordoned off the protesters.

But then something unexpected happened. On the command of one of the protesters, hundreds of firemen suddenly rushed up the stairs of the train station, before invading the terminal building itself. Streaming through it, they accessed the tracks, and lay down on them.

For 20 minutes all train traffic was disrupted, before, as abruptly as before, the firemen, some of whom were wearing masks, got up and ran off. No arrests were reported by the local media.

The demonstrators then announced that the next protest will happen on December 3, and have called for other government services to join.

The grievance between the emergency service and politicians began when a center-right bloc was elected to preside over the Nord department – which comprises more than 2.5 million people – in April, which promised to enact cuts.

But the negotiations with the firefighters, who became a worldwide internet sensation last year for recording a raunchy, semi-naked lip-synch cover of a pop song, took a turn for the worse in September, when the council leader accused them of being “a Mexican army” – a French idiom signifying an organization that has more bureaucrats than it has people doing its intended job.

“Firefighters are expected to work 95 24-hour shifts a year. In our district they work 84, plus sick leave. It’s a Mexican army. There are already more firefighters than fires, and soon there will be more managers than fires,” said Jean René Lecerf, the Republican head of the council.

Picking up on the insult, 900 firefighters turned up to a rally in September wearing sombreros and stick-on moustaches, as they marched to the sound of a mariachi band.

But the lighthearted approach had no effect, and now more hardline tactics have been deployed.