France is struggling to quell unrest on its Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique amid fears that strikes and street protests could spread to other French overseas departments.
Guadeloupe has been paralyzed by three weeks of general strikes over low wages and the high cost of living. Tens of thousands have joined demonstrations led by the Collective against Extreme Exploitation (LKP), an umbrella group of unions and associations demanding aid for poor workers struggling to survive on an island famous for its tourist luxury.
Petrol stations and the port have been closed and barricaded, supermarkets, schools, banks and government offices have shut and the strikes have caused power cuts, limited water supplies and left the island’s 500,000 residents facing food shortages.
At the peak of the island’s tourist season — a driving force of the local economy — hotels have closed and charter flights have been canceled. About 15,000 French tourists have canceled their holiday plans and Club Mediterranee has shut its main hotel.
Martinique has joined forces and staged a week of protests.
Both islands form part of France. They are run from Paris, their citizens are French and the currency is the euro.
But the protesters say Paris has ignored their plight in the global financial crisis and families are struggling to survive on an expensive island where poverty and unemployment levels are double those in France.
France’s minister for overseas territories, Yves Jego, arrived in the Caribbean on Wednesday to launch a second round of emergency talks with mediators. His swift departure after his first crisis visit last week caused outrage on the island.
Meanwhile, unions in France’s other two overseas departments, French Guiana and the Indian ocean island of La Reunion, threatened to launch their own protest movements, saying they suffered the same misery and low wages.
Before negotiations began, Elie Domota, the leader of the LKP on Guadeloupe, said the group would “harden” its position and strikes would continue.
Domota said that by refusing to increase basic salaries, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon was bowing to the interests of business leaders who “did not want to spend a cent.”
Jego said France would give approximately 180 million euros (US$230 million) in aid to ensure lower fuel costs and food prices and help poor families. But the prime minister refused to meet demands for a monthly 200 euros increase in base salaries.
Patrick Lozes, the head of Cran, France’s umbrella group of black associations, said discrimination was a factor in the revolt.
“Is it normal that, 160 years after the abolition of slavery, the descendants of colonists possess 90% of Guadeloupe’s riches, but represent only 1% of the population?” he said on his blog.