Thursday, February 26, 2009

Guadeloupe, Martinique News Bulletin: LKP Seizes TV Station; Martinique Erupts in Second Night of Rebellion

Guadeloupe Protesters Seize State TV - Channel Editor

Thursday February 26th, 2009 / 19h18

PARIS (AFP)--Protesters have seized control of a state-run television station on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and plan to make an on air statement, the channel's editor in chief said Thursday.

Speaking by telephone from Baie-Mahault, Francois-Joseph Ousselin said members of the LKP protest movement, which is leading a five-week-old general strike, had taken control of local network RFO-Guadeloupe.

"They're everywhere in the corridors, the studios, the gardens and the car park," he told AFP. "They asked to be able to express themselves on air, which they should be able to do very soon."

At 1:00 pm (1700 GMT) RFO began broadcasting music and militant chants.

Ousselin said the protesters were angry about moves by the station management to transfer RFO's broadcasting base to Paris during the strike, which has paralyzed the island.

Since Jan. 20, the LKP has been protesting the high cost of living in Guadeloupe, which in theory is part of France and the European Union but which has much higher poverty levels than the mainland.

Government negotiators believe they are close to an agreement to end the action in exchange for a package of salary increases.

Thursday February 26th, 2009 / 19h18 Source : Dowjones Business News

Guadeloupe inches closer to strike-ending deal


POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe (AP) — Bleary-eyed negotiators shuffled past hundreds of striking protesters in a Guadeloupe plaza before dawn Thursday, hailing progress but still short of a deal to end a general strike that has paralyzed the French Caribbean island for 37 days.

Union leaders, business owners and French government officials were again unable to find a solution that would both help islanders cope with economic crisis, unemployment and soaring living costs and be acceptable to the French overseas department's private sector.

But the 11 hours of debate stretching from Wednesday afternoon until 3 a.m. (2 a.m. EST, 0700 GMT) Thursday were some of the most productive yet thanks to a French government offer to provide $102 (euro80) of a striker-demanded $250 (euro200) monthly increase on the minimum wage.

"We made progress but we have not reached the end," Nicolas Desforges, Guadeloupe's top Paris-appointed official, told reporters as he exited the meeting. He said representatives of the private sector were considering proposals and would return to the negotiating table Thursday afternoon.

Strike leaders with the Collective Against Exploitation, or LKP, told exhausted but cheering supporters who remained singing and drumming throughout the negotiations that they had secured a promise to meet the $250 monthly raise for islanders making $1,130 (euro900) a month but that details were yet to be finalized.

Business owners involved in the negotiations could not immediately be reached to confirm those statements.

Patience, however, wore out by late Thursday morning when roughly 500 protesters descended upon a high-end grocery store in Baie-Mahault and chased off shoppers. They chanted, "Employers are thieves, exploitation has ended!" as they knocked over shopping carts and barricaded the parking lot.

Several French riot police arrived, although the protest did not turn violent and no property was damaged.

LKP member Max Celeste said protesters targeted the Carrefour store because they are angry at large business owners.

"They are the only ones blocking the negotiations," he said.

In Martinique, the protest turned violent for the second night in a row as protests over high prices, low pay and alleged neglect by officials in Paris spread to a second Caribbean island.

Strikers looted stores, burned cars and hurled beer bottles at police who responded by firing tear gas. Two police officers were injured and one was taken to the hospital, police said in a statement.

The rioting began late Wednesday after someone set fire to a garbage bin in the capital of Fort-de-France. Hooded and armed rioters soon took over the capital, but police responded and calm returned in the pre-dawn hours. Dozens of people were detained, although police did not immediately provide a specific number.

Firefighters said they responded to about 50 calls that included 14 burned cars and about 40 garbage bin fires.

At least 27 people remain detained since Tuesday night, accused of participating in looting and arson.

Martinique has not seen the same degree of violence as that on Guadeloupe, where weeks of strikes degenerated into rioting in which one labor activist was shot dead. Business on both islands has been largely frozen.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week announced a $730 million (euro580 million) financial package to help development in the Caribbean regions of his country. But strikers complained that proposals were vague and did not directly address their demand for higher pay.

Associated Press Writer Rodolphe Lamy in Fort-de-France, Martinique, contributed to this report.

New violence erupts on French island Martinique

FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique (AFP) — Protesters set fire to garbage bins and rammed vehicles into hypermarkets Wednesday in a second night of violence on the strike-stricken French Caribbean island of Martinique.

Protesters blocked several streets of the island's capital Fort-de-France with trash bins, some of which were sent ablaze. Smoke rose above the city while tear gas could be smelled across town.

Police used tear gas to drive back young protesters on a Fort-de-France boulevard and prevented several attempts at looting.

But the metallic barriers of at least three large stores were broken, reports said.

A stolen car ploughed into the gate of the Carrefour Dillon hypermarket, according to RCI radio.

Police were deployed to protect the store. About 50 metres (yards) away, a group of youths took positions along the entrance of a highway, some of them holding Molotov cocktails.

Assailants drove a tractor into another store, Intersport, before police arrived. According to local journalists, another sports store was looted.

On Tuesday night, around 20 small stores and two mid-sized stores were looted and vandalised, while several cars were set ablaze.

Martinique and the neighbouring French island of Guadeloupe have been on strike for weeks, demanding higher wages to cope with the high cost of living on the tourist islands.

Stores looted, cars burned on island of Martinique


FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique (AP) — French police officers patrolled Martinique's capital late Wednesday after vandals burned cars and looted stores overnight as protests over high prices, low pay and alleged neglect by officials in Paris spread to a second Caribbean island.

Nearly 30 people were detained following the outburst in Fort-de-France, the French island's chief city, according to police headquarters.

Dozens of protesters gathered at city hall Tuesday night to demand results from slow-moving negotiations there over demands for pay increases. Around midnight, some began hurling rocks and bottles at police guarding the building, and officers responded by firing tear gas.

Protesters burned at least five cars, several garbage bins and a small grocery store. Several stores also were looted, but no one was injured, according to a police statement.

On Wednesday evening, a phalanx of French police officers were helping patrol the capital to enforce order.

Martinique has not seen the same degree of violence as that on the nearby French island of Guadeloupe, where weeks of strikes degenerated into rioting last week in which one labor activist was shot dead. Business on both islands has been largely frozen.

In Guadeloupe's biggest city of Pointe-a-Pitre, strikers assembled Wednesday night outside a seaside building where bargaining talks are taking place cheered apparent improvements in negotiations aimed at ending the more than monthlong general strike.

Government representatives have offered to add a euro80 ($102) monthly raise to islanders making euro900 ($1,130) a month in order to end the unrest in the French Caribbean island, according to Nicolas Desforges, Guadeloupe's top Paris-appointed official.

"This is a big contribution by the French government to get out of this crisis," Desforges told reporters.

Added with the pledged contributions of island business owners, strikers now have a euro180 ($230) raise offer on the table — just euro20 ($25) less than the euro200 ($250) monthly increase they have been seeking.

But Guadeloupe protest leader Elie Domota said Wednesday evening that it was too early to say whether the new offer would be acceptable. "This is a proposal on the table we are going to review," he told reporters.

Government negotiators in Point-a-Pitre had left the bargaining table Monday night, saying they were not prepared to agree to a euro200 ($250) monthly raise for those making euro900 ($1,130) a month.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week announced a euro580 million ($730 million) financial package to help development in the Caribbean regions of his country. But strikers complained that proposals were vague and did not directly address their demand for higher pay.

Associated Press writers Pierre-Yves Roger in Paris and Jonathan M. Katz in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe contributed to this report.

Allons, enfants!

Feb 26th 2009 | PARIS
From The Economist print edition

French fears that protests will spread from the Caribbean to the mainland

THERE was a time when Nicolas Sarkozy relished crisis management. His fearless, no-nonsense approach resolved more than one stand-off. Few people have forgotten how, as a young mayor of Neuilly 16 years ago, he walked into a nursery school and negotiated with an armed hostage-taker threatening to blow up the building. Yet a series of protests, overseas and on the mainland, are now testing the president’s skills to the limit.

The most turbulent have been on the island of Guadeloupe, a French department in the Caribbean that has been paralysed by a general strike. One union member was shot dead when matters turned violent. Although the island seems calmer now, the strike goes on, as does the conflict between the government and the unions, which want a €200 ($256) monthly pay rise. This week trouble broke out in Martinique, a neighbouring island, with cars burned and shops looted.

The biggest fear is that the turmoil may spread to the mainland. In recent weeks, high-school pupils, teachers, university researchers, railwaymen and car workers have taken to the streets. On one day in January some 1m-2.5m people protested against low pay and job cuts. Unions have called another day of action for March 19th. In a poll, 63% of respondents said the violence in Guadeloupe could spread to mainland France.

In many ways, the troubles in Guadeloupe and Martinique are specific. With their French post offices, town halls, prefects and use of the euro, they are in theory French administrative departments. In reality, the state pumps €13 billion a year into the overseas territories in subsidies and tax breaks, including a 40% salary premium for civil servants. Yet unemployment is three times as high as on the mainland, and GDP per person just over half as big. Prices of goods such as yogurt or fresh beef are on average 34% higher, according to France-Antilles, a newspaper.

A demand for higher pay to compensate set off the strikes in Guadeloupe. Mr Sarkozy’s government is in talks with the unions. Yet the protests are racial as much as economic on an island where the white minority owns most businesses. The main protest group calls itself, in creole, Movement against Pwofitayson, a blend of the words “profiteering” and “exploitation”. Elie Domota, its leader, who is a securely paid French civil servant, talks of re-establishing “the legitimate rights of blacks as the majority people”. The struggle is an unusually toxic mix of neocolonial resentment and economic unrest.

There are still grounds for worrying about contagion. French opposition politicians have piled in to Guadeloupe to “express solidarity”, implicitly linking the struggle to home. The poster-boys of anti-capitalism have made the trip, including José Bové, a sheep-farmer-turned-campaigner, and Olivier Besancenot, a hard-left Trotskyite leader. Even Ségolène Royal, a Socialist former presidential candidate, dropped in this week, proclaiming, “Let’s remember the French Revolution!”

Many anxieties in Guadeloupe exist in France too. After meeting union leaders recently, Mr Sarkozy tried to head off more conflict by offering to raise family allowances, reduce income tax for the lowest-paid and boost unemployment insurance. But the unions also want a higher minimum wage, a cut in VAT and an end to civil-service job cuts. Union elections to company works councils are due in March, and nobody is in the mood to compromise.

One person who spoke to the president recently says he is “extremely tense”. He needs to make sure that public opinion does not swing behind the strikers. Yet ordinary people feel they are paying for the excesses of others, so many support the protesters. Paradoxically, they may do so even more because of new rules guaranteeing minimum service, ensuring that strikes do not paralyse public transport.

Mr Sarkozy needs to tread a line between helping the most vulnerable and resisting demands that would weigh on the public purse in the long run. But his popularity has sunk by seven points, to 37%. He has not helped himself by publicly ridiculing professionals, such as university lecturers, whom he is trying to encourage to accept reform. Above all, his action-man style leaves him exposed. By taking most matters into his own hands, in contrast to the patrician aloofness of his predecessors, he has robbed himself of one trick many of them used: blaming the prime minister when things go wrong.

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