February 13, 2009 / 12:37 PM / 10 years ago

Paris fails to end island protests, seen spreading

PARIS, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Protesters paralysing the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe over demands for pay rises vowed to continue their strike on Friday despite efforts by the government to defuse the crisis, now in its fourth week.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his first public comments on a protest movement that is spreading to other French overseas territories, said he wanted deep changes to the islands’ economies but made no announcements likely to end the strike.

“We must be suspicious of short-term ideas that would end this conflict but compromise the future of those territories,” he told a cabinet meeting in a speech later sent to media, suggesting he would not bow to the key demand for pay rises.

An alliance of around 50 unions and associations known as “Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon” (LKP) — “Stand up against exploitation” in local dialect — began the protest on Jan. 20 demanding a 200 euro ($260) monthly rise for low-wage workers.

Last week, the protest spread to another French Caribbean island, Martinique, and now an alliance of unions in the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion is calling for a general strike there on March 5.

Prices of many staple items are much higher in the islands than in mainland France due to the cost of imports, while the average salaries are lower and unemployment is higher.

Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry added her voice on Friday to a growing chorus who warn that the crisis in the islands, which are fully part of France, could spread to the mainland where dissatisfaction is running high as well.

“I am fearful that the feeling of exasperation of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique could spread here too ... Everything must be done to avoid that,” Aubry told newspaper Le Parisien, accusing Sarkozy of not listening to the people.

MEDIATORS SENT PACKING

The government last week dispatched Yves Jego, the minister in charge of overseas territories, to Guadeloupe to negotiate with strikers and employers there. But he returned abruptly to Paris on Monday, causing further anger on the island.

Since then he has returned to both Guadeloupe and Martinique with two newly appointed mediators, to no avail. On Friday, the Guadeloupe protesters said they were furious.

“The mediators have nothing new to tell us. They came supposedly to bring the parties closer together but they know nothing about the situation here,” said Elie Domota, one of the LKP leaders, on France Inter radio.

“We are saying that the state has to help small Guadeloupe businesses to develop, to have access to bank credits, and also to pay for our wage increases,” Domota said.

The protesters want the state to lower business taxes as a top up to company finances so that they will be able to provide the 200 euro pay rise that employers say they cannot afford.

The crisis is complicated by the structure of the economy in the French Caribbean, inherited from the colonial era. Most of the island’s assets, in land or in businesses, are in the hands of “beke” families, the descendants of white settlers, while the majority, who are black, live in relative poverty.

Sarkozy acknowledged some of these problems in his remarks.

“There cannot be a two-speed society in which one part gets richer while the other stagnates and depends on benefits,” he said. (Editing by Jon Boyle)

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