Violence spreads to another French island
As a 44-day general strike ends in Guadeloupe with a pay rise promise, demonstrations on Reunion turned violent Thursday.SAINT-DENIS – Police fired tear gas at stone throwers on Reunion Thursday as violent protests over the cost of living spread from France's Caribbean islands to its Indian Ocean territory.
The hooded youths set up a roadblock near Saint-Denis, the capital of the island that lies between Madagascar and Mauritius, while a separate protest in the city forced a supermarket to close when demonstrators tried to burst in.
Several thousand people marched in Saint-Denis and the town of Saint-Pierre to voice complaints similar to those made in recent weeks by fellow French citizens in the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
The protesters complain of higher prices, higher unemployment and lower salaries than in mainland France.
Thursday's incidents on Reunion, the biggest of France's four overseas departments with a population of around 800,000, came as a 44-day general strike ended in Guadeloupe with a promise of pay rises.
The six-week struggle, which saw one activist shot dead and hundreds of extra police deployed from France battle with protestors, ended with a 165-point deal on measures to improve living standards on the island.
On neighbouring Martinique, a general strike entered its second month Thursday with economic activity paralysed by road blocks thrown up by protesters.
Police on the island, which like Guadeloupe is popular with mainland French tourists seeking winter sun, have also used tear gas to stop the looting of stores accused of charging exorbitant prices.
There have been demonstrations against the cost of living on Reunion, but until Thursday none had turned violent. Trade unions on the island have called for a general strike to start next Tuesday.
The end of the Guadeloupe strike was a relief for President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, which also faces tensions in mainland France, where labour leaders have called for a one-day stoppage on 19 March.
"Today, our struggle has paid off," said Elie Domota, leader of the Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (LKP - League Against Profiteering), which led Guadeloupe's mainly black majority against mainly white business leaders.
"We must remain mobilised and continue to fight," he declared late Wednesday to a crowd of supporters gathered outside the French state's headquarters on the island to see an agreement signed.
While legally a full part of France, Guadeloupe is one of its poorest corners with 23 percent unemployment, more than twice the mainland rate, and a high cost of living.
The strikers accused a ruling class of "Bekes", white descendants of colonial plantation owners, of exploiting monopoly positions in retail and construction in order to maintain high prices.
Private sector bosses deny profiteering, and have warned that the LKP's wage demands will simply push up unemployment in a region already heavily dependent on state subsidies and public sector jobs.
Under Wednesday's accord, Guadeloupe's workers will receive an extra EUR 200 per month in their wage packets, partly paid for by the state and partly by their employers, to compensate for high prices.
The employers' association MEDEF, which represents several of the island's largest businesses, refused to sign the deal, but Domota insisted that most firms had agreed to finance their share of the increase.
The strike leader told Europe 1 radio that the accord would cover between 30,000 and 40,000 wage earners - among a population of around 450,000 - and that strikes would continue in any businesses that hold out.
The French Minister for Overseas Territories Yves Jego said the state's contribution to the salary boost package - applicable in all four overseas departments - would cost between EUR 200 and EUR 250 million in 2009.
AFP / Expatica