THE few tourists who have not yet fled the Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe were last night sheltering in their hotels, as the French overseas territory became plunged into a state bordering upon civil war.
After five weeks of strikes and mass street protests demanding that Paris brings a rise in pay and a drop in the price of basic consumer goods, nearly all commercial activity on Guadeloupe has been snuffed out.
Its normally busy airport has closed down and its roads have been made impassable by hundreds of barricades of burnt-out cars and felled trees.
The protest movement is now spreading to other French overseas territories, notably Guadeloupe's neighbouring island of Martinique, where demonstrators have taken to the streets with similar demands, as well as French Guyana and the Indian Ocean island of La Runion.
Reinforcements of four squadrons of riot police, totalling 280 officers, were sent to Guadeloupe from France yesterday to join the three squadrons already present on the islands.
"I hear a country that is crying, a country that has been put to fire and the sword," lamented Victorin Lurel, president of the regional council, after a union activist was shot dead at a barricade in Pointe--Pitre.
Eye-witness accounts tell of armed gangs now running amok amid the chaos, looting shops, torching buildings and creating no-go areas. Three riot police officers were wounded by gunfire on Monday. "It's almost the whole of Guadeloupe that is exploding," said Elie Domota, leader of the islands' principal trade union, the LKP.
French journalists in Pointe--Pitre reported that uniformed police patrols had been reduced in the city to avoid provoking spontaneous clashes.
The crisis that has led the 99 per cent majority black population of this tourist paradise into what Mr Lurel described as "an insurrection" is rooted in both economic hardship and a historic resentment against its white political rulers in France.
Unemployment among the 450,000 population of Guadeloupe is almost three times greater than that on mainland France. While the islands have a vastly inferior disposable income in comparison to the French national average, the price of consumer goods are markedly more expensive.
The unions' main demand is a monthly 200 raise for the lowest paid, who average about 900 per month, and the imposition of a cut in prices fixed by supermarket chains.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has until now been reluctant to agree committing public funds to a pay rise for fear of opening the floodgates to similar demands from unions on the mainland.
"It is shameful that each time people on Guadeloupe pose a problem, it requires a death for solutions to be found. We need urgent, immediate but durable solutions," said Mr Domota.
On 26 May, 1967, at least 80 people died after riot police opened fire on a demonstration in Pointe--Pitre by building workers. The massacre was largely ignored by the French media, and Mr Domota's LKP union has joined a demand for a public inquiry into the tragedy.
Mr Domota has accused the mostly white riot police sent from mainland France of racial abuse during protests. "I heard some say they were going to smash the faces of n******s," he claimed in an interview on a French radio station yesterday.
Island tensions turn violent
ABOUT 450,000 people live on Guadeloupe, a hilly island with white-sand beaches. Thousands of tourists have fled or cancelled holidays on the normally tranquil island, prompting many hotels to close and cruise ships to head elsewhere.
Many residents have left in recent decades to seek work in mainland France, often finding homes in poor suburbs that ring French cities.
These suburbs were rocked by rioting in 2005 and police are worried the Guadeloupe violence could re-ignite tensions in deprived mainland neighbourhoods.
Behind much of the unrest in both islands is resentment by Afro-Caribbeans, many of whom are descendants of slaves, that the vast majority of wealth and land is owned by the offspring of colonists – a white elite who compose 1 per cent of the population.
Matthew Cowen, a British IT consultant who lives on Martinique, said Fort-de-France was encircled by barricades. "I had a colleague who tried to cycle to the office but he was told under no circumstances would he be allowed to pass through," said Mr Cowen. "It seems there is a hardening of the movement and there are a lot of people behind it."