POINTE-A-PITRE, France (Reuters) - Youths shot dead a union representative and injured three policemen on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe overnight after weeks of protest over economic conditions.
Union leaders said the situation was spiralling out of control and politicians are fearful the unrest might spread to mainland France.
“Guadeloupe is on fire,” said Elie Domota, the leader of the protest movement that has paralysed the island for a month.
Officials said union representative Jacques Bino was shot dead after his car was blocked at a barricade set up by youths in Guadeloupe’s biggest town, Pointe-a-Pitre.
Three policemen were hit by gunfire when they tried to reach the scene, government official Hubert Vernet told Reuters.
“(Bino) was injured by gunshot and when the security forces tried to help him they were also fired at. Sadly, by the time they had secured the area, he was dead,” he said. The police were in no way responsible for the death, Vernet added.
Television images showed hooded youths overturning cars and blocking numerous streets on the island. Shops were set ablaze and locals said there had been looting overnight.
An alliance of about 50 unions and associations known as “Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon,” or “Stand Up Against Exploitation” in local dialect, started a general strike last month and are demanding a 200 euro (177 pounds) hike in the monthly minimum wage.
Guadeloupe depends heavily on imports for fuel and food staples and prices are higher than in mainland France. Unemployment stands at more than 20 percent and wages are lower.
One of a string of small islands that form an arc from Cuba to Trinidad and Tobago, Guadeloupe was colonised by the French in the 17th century. It is now a full part of the French republic and falls within the European Union.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has not spoken publicly about Guadeloupe, concentrating instead on trying to defuse a union protest in mainland France that brought up to 2.5 million people on to the streets in a day of action on January 29.
He is scheduled to meet union leaders later in the day to discuss their demands for more help for households and has agreed to see Guadeloupe parliamentarians on Thursday.
Political opponents accused him of mishandling the crisis, which has spread to other overseas regions of France, with strikes affecting neighbouring Martinique and threatened on Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
“The government has done certain things that have aggravated this crisis,” said centrist leader Francois Bayrou. “The situation is disastrous and dangerous.”
Some 450,000 people live on Guadeloupe, but many locals have left the island 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.
Most of Guadeloupe’s big businesses are in the hands of a minority of “beke,” or white families, many the descendants of slave-era colonists, which has added to protesters’ grievances.
LKP leader Domota said locals were being provoked by racist insults and brutality from the police. Officials denied this and said lawless thugs were to blame for the violence.
“We are facing bands of youths who are not directly tied to the protest movement, but who are taking advantage of the social unrest to cause wilful damage,” said Nicolas Desforges, the chief government representative on the island.
Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by James Mackenzie and Robert Woodward
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.