Tourists Flee French Caribbean as Protests Grow More Violent

Tourists stuck at hotels as violent protests swept this Caribbean island began flying out on Thursday after police pulled down barricades on roads leading to the airport following a third night of rioting.

The French government offered to boost salaries to end the monthlong strike.

More than 500 police were deployed overnight across Guadeloupe, with dozens arriving by helicopter in the southern coastal town of Sainte-Anne, where youths forced their way into the city hall. The building was not vandalized, but several businesses were looted and set on fire, Mayor Richard Yacou said.

Police pulled apart barricades protesters had set up on roads to the main airport, enabling dozens of tourists to depart.

Several Americans left the Caraib'Bay Hotel to catch a flight to Miami after being stranded for two days because of blocked roads, hotel manager Armelle Longuet said. One of Longuet's guests, Maia Schon, 54, from Switzerland, said she expects to leave next week as planned, even though she feels unsafe walking outside the resort.

"On foot, it's a problem to go to places," she said. "We stay in the hotel. It's peaceful, it's nice, but we can't do the things we like."

At least 39 people were detained for questioning overnight. Firefighters responded to 28 incidents as rioters pelted them with rocks, said Nicolas Desforges, the island's top appointed official.

Rioters also shot at police in the tourist resort town of Gosier, and at least five stores or restaurants were set ablaze in a few towns overnight, said Guadeloupe sub-prefect Stephane Grauvogel. No injuries were reported.

The only fatality thus far has been a union activist shot dead Tuesday. The government blamed rioters, but protest leader Elie Domota questioned that conclusion and called for an "in-depth investigation to really determine what happened because the circumstances are troubling."

Joblessness and poverty lie just beyond the island's white-sand beaches, groves of palm trees and all-inclusive resorts.

Unemployment on Guadeloupe hit 23 percent in 2007, according to the most recent data from France's national statistics bureau. That compares with 8.3 percent in mainland France in 2007. Some 12.5 percent of Guadeloupe's residents live in poverty, compared with 6.5 percent in mainland France, according to a 2006 report by the Guadeloupe Regional Health Observatory.

Strikers in Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique are demanding a euro200 ($250) monthly raise for low-paid workers who now make roughly euro900 ($1,130) a month.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Thursday a "a very significant pay raise, in particular for the lower earners," is now on the table in negotiations between employers and striking workers and President Nicolas Sarkozy later the increase might be exempted from taxes.

Sarkozy called the situation on the islands a "crisis," saying it had its "roots in the fact that for years, France's overseas populations were not told the truth because it was thought we could fix everything through a benevolent paternalism."

Sarkozy seemed to imply that his predecessors preferred to give handouts to overseas regions instead of confronting fundamental flaws in the island economies.

"Today, we have the duty of listening to our fellow citizens and we also have, at the same time, the duty of restoring civil peace as soon as possible," Sarkozy told officials from overseas territories Thursday at Paris' presidential Elysee palace.

The violence has prompted thousands of tourists to cancel their vacations to Guadeloupe and Martinique. The protests and strikes have hurt scores of businesses, including restaurants, hotels and car rental agencies during the islands' peak winter tourist season.