Reuters International

French CGT labour union members gather at the start of the trial of Air France employees near the courthouse in Bobigny, France, May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

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PARIS (Reuters) - Members of a union spearheading protests in France rallied at a courthouse on Friday in support of five people who risk prison over an incident in which Air France executives had their shirts ripped to shreds by employees furious over planned job cuts.

The rally was timed to coincide with hearings -- ultimately put off until September -- in a trial where the five stand accused of aggravated violence, an offence that carries a sentence of up to three years in jail.

Fifteen people in all are accused over an altercation that hit world headlines last October when Air France's human resources director and another executive were forced to flee a heated meeting about plans for 2,900 job cuts.

Photos and video footage showed Xavier Brosetta stumbling to the ground, his shirt torn to pieces, as he and the other executive fled, subsequently scaling a metal fence to escape an angry crowd of employees.

The incident prompted weeks of hand-wringing in France over the country's image abroad and its tumultuous labour relations, now back in media headlines at the moment with wave after wave of street demonstrations and strikes over labour law reforms.

The hardline CGT union, which is leading the anti-reform protests in a showdown with the Socialist government, has denounced what it describes in the Air France case as "a strategy of criminalisation of union activity".

CGT chief Philippe Martinez, who has said his union will fight until the government withdraws the labour law. He turned up at the rally saying the CGT, under attack from the other big union as well as the government, saw no reason to change tack.

"Seventy percent of people oppose this (labour reform) law. We're in sync with public opinion," he told reporters.

The judge in charge of the trial at the court near Paris said two days of hearings would be needed instead of the one day scheduled, leading him to postpone the case and reschedule it for next September.

Acting to curb the unrest on Friday, French riot police removed picketers and barricades blocking access to a large fuel distribution depot and President Francois Hollande warned anti-reform protesters he would not let them strangle the economy.

(Reporting by Chine Labbe; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Geert de Clercq and Mark Heinrich)

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