Page last updated at 00:18 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Sarkozy steps in to end protests

Protest in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, 19 February 2009
Guadeloupe has seen a month of protests over rising food prices

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged $730m (£507m) in economic aid to France's Caribbean territories in an effort to head off escalating protests.

He also promised political reform in Guadeloupe and Martinique, during an emergency meeting with representatives from the two territories.

There has been a month of unrest in Guadeloupe over rising food prices.

Union leader Elie Domota responded by saying the unions would return to negotiations on Friday, AFP reported.

But he described the French proposals as "fuzzy" and did not say whether the protests would be called off.

Meanwhile, tourists who had been trapped in hotels by three days of rioting began flying out of Guadeloupe after police pulled down barricades erected by the protesters, AP reported.

The tourist industries in both Guadeloupe and Martinique have been badly affected by the unrest, with thousands of tourists cancelling holidays.

'Major issues'

In a speech broadcast around the islands, Mr Sarkozy said: "I know the frustrations, the injuries, the suffering that have to be overcome."

He had told MPs from the islands that he would go to Guadeloupe "as soon as calm has returned" to open a series of general consultations to debate "the major issues at stake" in each of the overseas regions.

Earlier, French PM Francois Fillon agreed to increase payments to low-paid workers on the islands.

The situation is getting worse - everybody is calling for calm
Max Larisse
BBC reader, Guadeloupe

He proposed supplementing their wages with a 200-euro ($253; £176) monthly payment.

"I hope this will meet the demands for measures to address the high cost of living in the West Indies," he said.

Rioting continued and 33 people were arrested overnight on the island of Guadeloupe, where a man was killed this week.

A general strike over rising prices has crippled the island since 20 January.

Shops and petrol stations have been shut, and rubbish has piled up on the streets.

A similar strike has taken hold on nearby Martinique.

Both islands are full overseas departments of France.

France announced on Wednesday that it would send four military police units to Guadeloupe after union official Jacques Bino was shot dead by armed youths at a barricade in the largest city, Pointe-a-Pitre, on Tuesday night.

'Wealthy elite'

France had made some concessions to the strikers, but until Thursday had refused their main demand - that low-paid workers receive 200 euros a month to help them cope with spiralling prices.


But after all-night negotiations, Prime Minister Fillon said such an offer would be made to the Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), which has been leading the strikes on Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The islands use the euro, but prices are significantly higher than on the French mainland.

Some residents alleged that a wealthy, white elite was controlling imports and prices.

Patrick Lozes, head of the French black-rights group, Cran, complained that "160 years after the abolition of slavery, the descendants of colonial settlers own 90% of Guadeloupe's wealth, but represent only 1% of the population".

France's island territories were recently found to have the highest unemployment in the whole European Union, at more than 20%.

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