France urges calm after Guadeloupe violence, looting

18th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

A general strike over high cost of living has erupted into a sea of violence as youths loot shops, fired rifles at police and set fire in the capital of the French Caribbean island.

POINTE-A-PITRE – The French government appealed for calm Wednesday in Guadeloupe after a night of violence and looting on the French Caribbean island, crippled by a month-long strike.

Scores of armed youths fired rifles at police overnight, causing slight injuries to six members of the security force and several shops were set on fire in the capital Pointe-a-Pitre.

"The government's message is first of all to appeal for calm, that is the most important thing," said spokesman Luc Chatel in Paris.

"Everyone is better off finding a place at the negotiating table than on the barricades," he said in an interview to Europe 1 radio, adding that violence would not resolve the crisis.

An island of half a million residents, Guadeloupe has been paralysed by a general strike since 20 January over the high cost of living and violence has erupted over the past two nights.

Gangs of youths looted shops, smashed storefront windows and threw up roadblocks that were set on fire along the main streets of the capital and in at least two other cities.

Three police officers were slightly wounded during shooting at a housing estate in Pointe-a-Pitre, police said, and three gendarmes were also hurt when youths fired shots at them in Baie-Mahault, outside the capital.

"We have 15-year-old children who are clashing with police. We may well have families in mourning," said Baie-Mahault Mayor Ary Chalus, who described the scene as "chaos".

Protesters used burning cars, tree trunks and even a fridge to block roads across Guadeloupe on Tuesday as the island's main airport was shut for security reasons after a night of looting and fires. The airport later reopened.

The French overseas department has been sliding deeper into turmoil since the Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), a coalition of unions and leftist groups, launched their action.

The LKP said it planned to step up protests this week after the government refused to bow to its central demand for a monthly 200-euro increase for low-wage earners.

LKP leader Elie Domota appealed for calm, but later accused French authorities of treating the island, one of its four overseas departments, like a "colony".

"Guadeloupe is a colony because they would never have allowed the situation to fester for so long in a French department before taking action," said Domota on RTL radio.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to meet with elected officials from Guadeloupe and other overseas departments on Thursday to take stock of the situation.

Police detained dozens of protesters in Guadeloupe on Monday after they began putting up barricades. Prime Minister Francois Fillon said roadblocks were not "part of the legal means of expression."

Unions launched a strike on the neighbouring French island of Martinique on 5 February also to press for higher salaries and measures to bring down the prices of basic goods.

Island residents rely almost exclusively on imports sold in French-owned supermarkets at significantly higher prices than in France.

Most shops, cafes, banks, schools and government offices have been shut in Guadeloupe and Martinique and the strike has also hit the key tourism industry.

The conflict has also exposed race and class divides on the French Caribbean islands where a white elite wields power over a majority descended from African slaves.

On both islands the economy is largely in the hands of the "Bekes," the local name for a tiny white minority who are mostly the descendants of colonial landlords and sugar plantation slave owners of the 17th and 18th centuries.

While unemployment runs high, Guadeloupe and Martinique are much richer than their neighbours in the Caribbean, with which they have few economic, political or cultural links.

Unemployment stands at 22 percent, against around eight percent on mainland France, while gross domestic product per person here is just 60 percent of the French average.

[AFP / Expatica]

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