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Prison wardens are surrounded by French gendarmes as they block the Lyon-Corbas jail near Lyon during a nationwide protest, France, January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot

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PARIS (Reuters) - French prison guards launched a nationwide strike on Monday in a showdown with President Emmanuel Macron's government over staff levels and violence that they say is spiralling out of control inside the country's overcrowded jails.

The strike, starting with pre-dawn pickets, marked an escalation in protests after unions this weekend rejected a government proposal to employ 100 extra guards this year and a further 1,000 before the 2022 end of Macron's mandate.

Guards burned tyres and wooden pallets outside the gates to several jails ahead of talks hastily convened by Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet.

"We will not be used as cannon fodder. We won't give an inch," Yoan Karar, a senior Force Ouvriere (FO) union official, told CNews.

His union is demanding higher wages and rapid hiring of 2,400 staff.

Macron's pressure is under mounting pressure to resolve the unrest among prison staff after several attacks on guards by inmates in different jails in the past week.

On Friday, riot police clashed with guards manning a picket outside the Fleury Merogis prison, where protests first erupted after an Islamist militant jailed over the killing of 21 people in Tunisia in 2000 slashed guards on the head and torso with a pair of scissors in northern France.

Over the weekend, the government also proposed separating France's most violent inmates from the rest of the 70,000 prison population, one of Europe's largest.

President Emmanuel Macron said earlier this month that a plan would be presented in February that it would go beyond an existing pledge to build thousands of new prison cells.

France's prison population has more than doubled since the 1970s, and prison guards complain increasingly that they have neither the staff nor the equipment and support to deal with violent inmates, notably convicted Islamists and petty criminals who become radicalised while in prison.

Union representative Karar, a guard for 13 years at Fresnes prison on the edge of Paris, said records put the number of attacks on security staff at 4,000 a year.

"You cannot put a guard in charge of 100 or 150 prisoners and just give him a whistle," said Karar, calling for guards to be armed with taser guns.

(Reporting By Brian Love; editing by Richard Lough)

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Reuters