Anger about a vaccine mandate in the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe has created an “explosive” situation, President Emmanuel Macron has said.
A general strike called by trade unions has entered its second week following nights of looting and violent protests against coronavirus measures imposed by Paris, including health pass rules and mandatory vaccinations for health workers.
Macron’s prime minister and lawmakers from the Caribbean archipelago will hold crisis talks in Paris on Monday.
Home to roughly 400,000 residents, police in Guadeloupe arrested 38 people overnight on Sunday after curfew violators looted and torched shops and pharmacies.
“We just don’t know how far this will still go,” the mayor of Point-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe’s main city, told France Info radio.
French media reported on Sunday that rioters had broken into an arms depot in Pointe-a-Pitre and taken rifles.
Guadeloupe has been hit by violent protests before, the mayor said, but there are “big worries” on the island now because rioters had guns.
Officials in Guadeloupe said protesters had fired on security forces and firefighters, adding that “organised gangs” have now joined the unrest.
The city was largely quiet on Monday with schools closed and barricades in the streets as most shops remain shuttered.
France has deployed 200 extra police officers, including elite commandos, to Guadeloupe to quell the unrest.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew from 6:00pm to 5:00am local time (22:00 – 0900 GMT) is currently set to last until Tuesday.
Anger about vaccine mandates and coronavirus restrictions has led to broader questions about the archipelago’s relationship with Paris.
During the weekend, Guadeloupe’s main trade union, the UGTG, called for continued protests.
While the demonstrations were started by the vaccine mandate, they also express “the depth of suffering, inequality, poverty and exclusion felt by the people, notably youths and the elderly,” said UGTG Secretary General Maite Hubert M’Toumo.
Macron acknowledged the gravity of the situation and urged local politicians not to mix issues related to coronavirus rules with colonial-era grievances and longstanding complaints the territory is economically neglected by Paris.
“We will not give in to lies, distorting of information and the exploitation by some people of this situation,” Macron said during a visit to northern France on Monday, calling the situation “very explosive”.
“We do not play with health and we will not let the health of the French be played with for the sake of political infighting,” he added. “We must explain, explain, explain and convince, convince, convince, because one must not play around with the peoples’ health.”
Vaccination rates in France’s overseas territories, in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and the Pacific, have generally been far lower than those on the mainland and there has been repeated unrest about anti-virus measures.
In the neighbouring French overseas territory of Martinique, located about 190km (118 miles) south of Guadeloupe, a general strike has been called for Monday. Union leaders are calling for an end to obligatory vaccinations for health workers. They are also demonstrating in favour of wage rises and issues.