FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique — Strikes that have nearly frozen everyday life on France’s Caribbean islands burst into clashes on Monday as police battled protesters angry at high prices and resentful of a tiny white elite on lands better known for beachside vacations.
Police detained about 50 people after coming under a barrage of stones as they tried to take down barricades on the island of Guadeloupe, said Nicolas Desforges, the island’s top government official.
Strikers were sprayed with tear gas and several, including union leader Alex Lollia, were injured, France’s leftist NPA party said in a statement.
The leader of the LKP Collective that organized Guadeloupe’s strike warned that deadly escalation is possible.
“If anyone injures a member of the LKP or a striker on Guadeloupe, there will be deaths,” Elie Domota said in a television interview last Saturday.
On the sister island of Martinique, 100 miles south of Guadeloupe, police said that as many as 10,000 demonstrators marched through the narrow streets of the capital to protest spiraling food prices and denounce the business elite.
Government offices, schools, banks and stores have been shuttered for most of the past 12 days as islanders demand lower prices and higher wages. The stoppage in Guadeloupe began in late January.
Living costs are high on the French islands, which depend heavily on imports and use the euro. The strike also is exposing racial and class tensions on islands where a largely white elite that makes up 1 percent of the population controls most businesses.
France’s minister for overseas departments, Yves Jego, warned the strike could cause job losses and Prime Minister Francois Fillon told reporters that barricades “are not part of the legal means of expression.”
“Gas stations must be as accessible as possible so the people can get around and the people of Guadeloupe must be able to buy basic goods,” said Fillon, whose government deployed more than 100 riot police to the region last week.
France’s National Travel Agencies organization has reported that 10,000 tourists have canceled planned vacations in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Several hotels in Guadeloupe reported Monday that they could not accept guests because protesters were congregated outside and staff did not show up to work.
The airport in Point-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, was closed, according to American Airlines, which canceled flights to the island, stranding about 15 people in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“I gambled and here I am,” said traveler Candy Miller of Atlanta, who was going to Guadeloupe to work at a veterinary clinic and had already postponed an earlier trip. “I’m going back home. I can’t wait until the airport reopens.”
Another frustrated traveler, Marie Jose Vezon, who is from Guadeloupe, was trying to find accommodations in Puerto Rico after disembarking from a Caribbean cruise.
“Now, I can’t go home,” she said after the airline canceled her flight.
Lines of cars snaked outside of gas stations in Martinique as islanders tried to fill their tanks.
Strikers allowed 28 of the island’s 85 gas stations to be resupplied, but forced small shop owners, who had opened over the weekend, to re-close and blockaded industrial zones.
Matthew Cowen, a British IT consultant who lives on Martinique, said Fort-de-France was encircled by barricades, and garbage has been piling up along the island’s narrow streets.
“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 Cowen, who lives on the outskirts of Fort-de-France. “It seems there is a certain hardening of the movement and there are a lot of people behind it.”
Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield in Paris and Andrew Selsky and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.
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