Tourists trapped by violent protests on this French Caribbean island began leaving on Thursday after a third night of mayhem when rioters fired at police, stormed a city hall and burned stores. The French government offered to boost salaries to end the monthlong strike.
More than 500 police were deployed overnight across Guadeloupe, with dozens arriving by helicopter in the southern coastal town of Sainte-Anne, where youths forced their way into the city hall. The building was not vandalized, but several businesses were looted and set on fire, Mayor Richard Yacou said.
Early Thursday, police pulled apart barricades protesters had set up on roads to the main airport, enabling dozens of tourists to depart.
Several Americans left the Caraib'Bay Hotel Thursday morning to catch a flight to Miami after being stranded for two days because of blocked roads, hotel manager Armelle Longuet said. One of Longuet's guests, Maia Schon, 54, from Switzerland, said she expects to leave next week as planned, even though she feels unsafe walking outside the resort.
"On foot, it's a problem to go to places," she said. "We stay in the hotel. It's peaceful, it's nice, but we can't do the things we like."
At least 39 people were detained for questioning overnight. Firefighters responded to 28 incidents as rioters pelted them with rocks, said Nicolas Desforges, the island's top appointed official. Rioters also shot at police in the tourist resort town of Gosier, and at least five stores or restaurants were set ablaze in a few towns overnight, said Guadeloupe sub-prefect Stephane Grauvogel. No injuries were reported.
The only fatality thus far has been a union activist shot dead onTuesday. The government blamed rioters; protest leader Elie Domota questioned that conclusion and called for an "in-depth investigation to really determine what happened because the circumstances are troubling."
Domota's LKP collective planned another protest Thursday morning. Joblessness and poverty lie just beyond the island's white-sand beaches, groves of palm trees and all-inclusive resorts. Unemployment on Guadeloupe hit 22.7 per cent in 2007, according to the most recent data available from France's national statistics bureau. That compares with 8.3 per cent in mainland France in 2007. Some 12.5 per cent of Guadeloupe's residents live in poverty, compared with 6.5 per cent in mainland France, according to a 2006 report by the Guadeloupe Regional Health Observatory. Strikers in Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique are demanding a euro200 ($250) monthly raise for low-paid workers who now make roughly euro900 ($1,130) a month.
Government officials met overnight in Paris to find solutions. Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced a plan on RTL radio Thursday morning that includes extra government benefits totaling nearly euro200 ($250) extra a month for low-income workers. Fillon said the employers not the state would foot the bill for the pay increases. The issue of who would pay for a raise one of strikers key demands has stymied negotiations in the past. Victorin Lurel, president of Guadeloupe's regional council, demanded that the government make a stronger effort to restore calm across the island.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to host a meeting of elected officials from France's overseas departments and territories on Thursday "to respond to the anxiety, the worry, and a certain form of despair of our compatriots overseas," he said during a TV appearance.
The violence has prompted thousands of tourists to cancel their vacations to Guadeloupe and Martinique. The protests and strikes have hurt scores of businesses, including restaurants, hotels and car rental agencies during the islands' peak winter tourist season.