The French military and police are dispatching special forces units to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to quell five days of rioting over France’s COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the situation in the former colony “very explosive” after ugly scenes of burning, violence, and looting.
A French official confirmed to VICE World News media reports that elite police and counter-terrorism units would reinforce the 2,000-member local French gendarme force tasked with maintaining order in the archipelago of 12 islands south of Haiti.
On Saturday, news reports from Guadeloupe described scenes of burning and looting across the main island and its estimated 400,000 inhabitants, with at least 38 people arrested as police and fire service workers came under repeated gunfire.
“We sent about 50 operators and specialists to assist the local gendarme because of the looting of a police armoury and incidents of sustained gunfire,” said a French police official, who does not have permission to brief the media. “There are no confirmed reports of casualties among security forces yet but the situation requires some additional expertise.”
On Friday last week, local media reported that a police armoury had been looted of rifles in the capital of Pointe-à-Pitre after riots erupted in opposition to the French government mandate requiring vaccines for all healthcare workers in French territory, which includes Guadeloupe and any other overseas departments of France. By Saturday, the looters were shooting at police as the island continued to erupt in violence.
Olivier Serva, the MP for Guadeloupe with Macron’s governing La République En Marche party, told the Guardian that he had warned that the situation on the island was “quasi-insurrectional.” He said opposition to the vaccine and COVID regulations was down to “weakening state authority” on the island and a symptom of the legacy of “colonial slavery.”
Although France itself has a 70 percent full vaccination uptake, Guadeloupe remains at about 40 per cent, due to its deep distrust of formal healthcare and French officials, said the police official in Paris.
“These are not people who trust the French outsiders very much, there’s a lot of poverty and economic disparity,” the official said. “But the real danger here appears to be the organised crime and drug gangs leading the looting with violence. That’s what [the French military and police units] will focus on, not some poor guy stealing beer.”
Footage of the rioting showed massive fires and violent clashes with police and reports from Sunday said that order had yet to be restored, with the special forces arriving from France on Sunday evening, said the official.