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Prison wardens face off with French gendarmes as they block the Maubeuge jail during a nationwide protest, France, January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

(reuters_tickers)

By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - France's overcrowded prison system is on the brink of mutiny after two weeks of unrest, the jails ombudsman said on Friday, with hardline labour unions vowing no surrender in a showdown with President Emmanuel Macron's government.

The warning from the independent ombudsman follows a second fruitless attempt by Macron's justice minister to buy peace with the wardens, whose work stoppages are slowly paralysing prisons and pushing tensions with prisoners to boiling point.

"If this crisis is not brought to an immediate end, there's no telling what will happen," said Adeline Hazan, who oversees conditions in France's 188 jails, which house some 70,000 convicts, one of the largest prison populations in Europe.

"The situation is extremely tense ... we're on the brink of a blowout."

Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, accused of reacting too slowly to frustration among wardens after a spate of attacks by inmates, defended what she called a "significant" offer of bonuses and improved safety measures.

The proposal, which also includes plans to isolate many Islamist militants and other religiously radicalised inmates from the rest of the prison population, was rejected by two of three labour unions on Thursday.

While Macron himself made a public declaration of confidence in Belloubet, the minister looked to be in difficulty after her proposal, the second in a week, was given short shrift.

The leader of the Force Ouvriere union, which has taken the hardest line, said there would be no let-up in the protests even if wardens were punished and their pay was docked for flouting a ban on strikes in the prison service.

Wardens want a change in their public service grade that would give them higher starting salaries, a demand that would cost around 80 million euros (£70 million) a year, FO's Emmanuel Baudin said. "That's nothing," he said in an interview on CNews TV.

It compares to a government offer worth 30 million euros from Belloubet, whose hands look tied by Macron's promise to keep a lid on public expenditure.

She told Europe 1 radio that union divisions were making matters more difficult. While the FO and CGT unions both rejected her latest offer, she had not yet had word from UFAP-Unsa, the largest wardens' union.

The threat of an extended disruption is weighing on the government, which is broadly seen as having delivered on its promises under Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

Hazan, the ombudsman, warned that paralysis could lead to mutiny in jails, where three and sometimes four inmates share a cell of less than 10 sq metres (yards).

She said that police, who have been sent in to replace off-work wardens in some locations, were there to maintain security, not tend to prisoners' everyday needs.

"You can't leave inmates without the means to keep clean, take showers, eat and see their families," she said, adding that many prisoners were simply confined to their cells and unable to get out for a prison-yard walk.

(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Simon Carraud; Editing by Luke Baker and Richard Balmforth)

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Reuters