* Billionaire Pinault blocked by protesters
* Managers at Caterpillar factory barricaded in office
* Labour relations in France increasingly tense
(Adds background, updates Caterpillar, Continental protests)
By Crispian Balmer
PARIS, March 31 Angry shop workers facing the
sack blocked French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault in a taxi
on Tuesday before riot police were called in to clear away the
protesters, officials and police said.
Pinault, chief executive of retail and luxury group PPR
(PRTP.PA), was surrounded in a car in central Paris by staff
from two of his stores that have announced 1,200 job cuts.
"They briefly delayed Mr. Pinault's car as he was leaving a
company meeting," said a spokesperson for the group.
French radio said he was blocked for an hour before the CRS
riot police, brandishing shields, secured his release.
Pinault, one of France's wealthiest men, is the latest
businessman to fall foul of protesters in France, with labour
relations deteriorating during the sharp economic downturn.
Earlier on Tuesday, dozens of workers at a factory run by
U.S. company Caterpillar Inc (CAT.N) blocked five managers in
their offices in southeast France and demanded further talks on
plans to lay off some 733 employees.
One of the managers was released in the early evening for
health reasons, but employees told French television they
planned to keep the other four barricaded in an office overnight
to press their case for more generous redundancy terms.
"The actions that are taking place today, led by a small
minority of individuals, are not helping as we work for a
positive resolution of this situation," Chris Schena, a
Caterpillar executive, said in a statement.
Directors at plants run by Japan's Sony (6758.T) and U.S.
group 3M (MMM.N) were also held hostage in March in separate
disputes over redundancies. On both occasions, unions said they
managed to wring extra concessions from the executives.
Police have previously been reluctant to intervene to avoid
fomenting violence and Pinault is the only businessman who has
so far been freed by the security forces.
Business leaders speaking in private have expressed
increasing concern at the situation and say they are being made
scapegoats for a crisis that was not of their making.
French managers working for German tyre maker Continental
(CONG.DE) decided to hold an important works council meeting in
the southern city of Nice on Tuesday, hundreds of kilometres
(miles) from the firm's factory for fear of possible violence.
When bosses announced on March 12 that they were eliminating
1,120 jobs and closing Continental's Clairoix plant, they were
pelted with eggs and had to run for cover.
France has a long tradition of street protests, with labour
conflicts often degenerating into a show of force between unions
Government officials have said they are worried that the
situation could spiral out of control, with job losses piling up
and French workers appearing increasingly militant.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau)