General strike shakes France’s Caribbean colonies

Introduction by Richard Fidler

February 26, 2009 -- Life on the Left -- The general strike in two French colonies in the Caribbean is firm, with no end in sight. It began in Guadeloupe on January 20 and spread to neighbouring Martinique on February 5 as a protest against the high cost of living and, more generally, the gross inequality between the conditions of the black population and a tiny white elite, descendants of slaveholders, who control most industry and agriculture.

The two islands, each with a population of about 400,000, are officially designated overseas departments of France, and the repression of the strikers by the French government, which has flown in more than a thousand gendarmes from the metropolis, has underscored their colonial oppression.

The islands, along with two other French colonies — French Guiana in South America and La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, both of which are experiencing mounting unrest — have the highest unemployment rates in the European Union, double those of metropolitan France. Also, prices of basic commodities and food staples, most of them imported, are much higher.

The strike in Guadeloupe is led by a coalition of about fifty organisations under the aegis of the General Union of the Workers of Guadeloupe (UGTG): Lihannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (LKP) in the local creole, or the Collective Against Super-exploitation. It has issued a platform of almost 150 demands for higher wages and improved social benefits, lower taxes and prices on necessities and transportation, construction of social housing, environmental decontamination, job training and priority hiring for Guadeloupians, no more layoffs, workers' participation in management, trade union rights including collective agreements and occupational health and safety protection, creation of public services in strategic sectors, land reform and agricultural development, development of media and other facilities in the local language and culture, and investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the massacre of striking construction workers in May 1967, etc. Similar demands have been raised by the strikers in Martinique.

In response to the strike, the French government sent a junior minister, Yves Jégo, to Guadeloupe. He proposed a deal to increase the salaries of 45,000 workers but was suddenly recalled by Paris. He returned a few days later after massive protest demonstrations across the island, but continued government resistance to its demands has forced the LKP to suspend negotiations.

The strike has closed the airport, gas stations, schools, banks, government offices and the tourist industry. It has so far claimed one victim: Jacques Bino, a tax agent and union member who was shot, apparently by provocateurs. Dozens of demonstrators have been arrested, including leaders of the LKP, although most have since been released.

Jacques Bino funeral

Funeral of murdered striker Jacques Bino.

On February 16, the LKP issued a call to the international workers' and democratic movement for solidarity with the strike. But the strike has received little attention in the international media, especially outside France. A notable, albeit modest exception in Canada is the publication of a number of articles on the strike in the current issue of the on-line Quebec publication Presse-toi-à-gauche. I have translated the introductory article, by Dimitris Fasfalis, below.

The mass trade union movement in France has given only lukewarm support to the strikers in the country’s Caribbean colonies. An initial demonstration of support in Paris was held February 16, at the initiative of some left-wing organisations including the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA, New Anti-Capitalist Party), a broadly based new party to the left of the French Socialist Party and the Communist Party of France (PCF). It attracted many young protesters from the immigrant communities, many chanting in the Creole language. A second solidarity action has been called for February 28 by Caribbean associations in France, with the support of some union and political organisations. The NPA has sent its leading spokesperson, Olivier Besancenot, to the Caribbean colonies to report firsthand on the mobilisations. [The NPA's solidarity statement is the final article below.]

One of the organisations in France expressing the strongest support for the Caribbean strikers is the Sans Papiers, an organisation of immigrants who lack the documentation to become full French citizens. I have translated its message of solidarity, below. It draws special attention to the anti-imperialist, anticolonial implications of the strike movement, as does the PTàG article by Fasfalis.

For further information on this inspiring strike movement — one of the first such mass actions in response to the developing global economic and social crisis — readers may wish to consult some of these links:

Official web site of the General Union of the Workers of Guadeloupe (mainly in Creole and French):

2009 French Caribbean general strikes (wikipedia, updated daily):

Carib Creole One news:

Photos of the mass protests and other activities:

Guadeloupe: A people arise

By Dimitris Fasfalis, translated by Richard Fidler

February 24, 2009 -- For more than a month now, Guadeloupe has been providing a tremendous lesson in social resistance to the local bosses and the French government. Its people have responded to the growing insecurity with an historically unprecedented general strike. What is behind this mobilization? The answer would seem to lie in the capacity of the social movement to embody the peoples’ aspirations for emancipation.

The aspiration for human dignity

The scope of this revolt, in the first place, refutes those who would dismiss it as the action of a few agitators seeking notoriety. The call for the general strike, issued last January 20, has been met by a massive mobilisation of the population in the streets. On February 18 alone, between 60,000 and 80,000 demonstrated in Le Moule, a town in the east of the island, to commemorate the assassination of five sugar cane workers by the repressive forces in 1957. That’s a demonstration of 13 to 17 per cent of the island’s total population of 460,000. Imagine what it would mean if five million demonstrators gathered day after day in Ottawa to demand higher wages.

Le Moule demo

Demonstration in Le Moule, February 14.

Initially a challenge to the price of gasoline, the social movement is demanding measures to fight the high cost of living and social squalor. Key demands include: an immediate increase in wages, pensions and social benefits of 200 euros [about $320 Canadian]; price controls on essential goods; an end to prices set artificially higher than those in France; social housing; jobs for youths; adequate social services, etc. Not surprisingly, the 149 demands of the movement are popular in a population with an “official” unemployment rate of 22.7% (the actual level is estimated at close to 40%) and twice the rate of poverty in mainland France...

Rejection of colonial domination

Apart from expressing the people’s aspirations for emancipation, the revolt in Guadeloupe also draws its strength from an anticolonial consciousness that is shared and fueled by a long tradition of contestation. Faced with the columns of cops hastily dispatched by Paris to repress the movement, the demonstrators chant in Creole: “Guadeloupe is ours, Guadeloupe is not theirs, they shall not do what they want in our country.” Discrimination in hiring, monopolisation of positions of responsibility by the French, monopoly rents extorted by the companies owned by the békés (the minority descendants of the French colonists), the government’s repressive response — Guadeloupe looks more like a colony than a department belonging to a Republic with the motto of ``Liberal, Equality, Fraternity''. This neocolonial reality is bitterly denounced by the current movement. And this political consciousness is a major asset, for the ruling classes of the metropolis have precious little control over the situation, or ability to give a veneer of legitimacy to their domination.

A united and fighting collective

Lastly, the general strike fully embodies the meaning of the Creole word “lyannaj”: to win over, to bring together, to unite in solidarity, unity and strong attachment. The Collective against super-exploitation (Lyannaj kont prwofitasyon, or LKP), which is leading the social movement, includes 49 organisations (associations and unions) and its spokesperson Elie Domota is proof of a leadership committed to speaking truth to the metropolitan power and the local business class. Asked by the French daily Libération, on February 17, if he would continue to call for mobilization, Domota answered:

“Yes, for we have no choice. Yves Jégo [French overseas secretary of state] says everything is settled, but he has lied to us and the government is not keeping its word or respecting its undertakings. The only thing that interests us is the signing of our draft agreement with the government and the bosses on February 8, which provides for an increase of 200 euros for the lowest wages. But since no one is listening to us, we are forced to be in the street... For four weeks, the government has been chartering planeloads of cops to casser du nègre — break the niggers. I remain open to dialogue, but today the government has chosen repression and the Guadeloupians are going to resist.”

It is not hard to understand why the “Guadeloupe” case upsets the Elysée [the French presidency]. The French government and bosses fear that Guadeloupe will become an example for the workers in the metropolis. And that fear is warranted, for Martinique and La Réunion are showing that this type of movement is highly contagious, particular in a time of crisis and after a quarter century of neoliberal offensive.

Translated from Presse-toi-à-gauche,

The Sans Papiers struggling for equality through regularisation are in solidarity with the colonies fighting for the equality of peoples!

Message of solidarity from the National Coordinating Committee of the Undocumented (CNSP–Coordination nationale des sans-papiers).

Paris, February 23, 2009 -- Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane, Réunion and soon Kanaky — the colonies that extend the surface of France from 550,000 km2 to 10,26,000 km2 — are engaged in an extended general strike to get the rich colons (Békés) and the monopolies of metropolitan finance capital to pay for the crisis.

The workers of the second-class peoples in what remains of the French colonial empire in this early 21st century united all of their organisations and associations around a platform of 131 demands that was signed by Yves Jégo, the overseas colonies secretary of state, before the French government reneged on its word after his recall to Paris.

Parallel to this, the Élysée sent thousands of repressive forces to put an end to the exemplary mobilisation of the Guadeloupian people. There are disturbing reports of provocative remarks that the sans-papiers unfortunately often hear when foreigners are being hunted down in metropolitan France: casser des sales nègres, des bamboulas, des bougnoules, des fourmies [“break the dirty niggers, the monkeys, the wogs, the narcos”].

And it was after more than a month of mobilisation, the success of the 2.5 million strikers and demonstrators on January 29 in France, and the murder of a Guadeloupian trade-unionist, Jacques Bino, that the Sarkozy regime deigned to emerge from its scornful silence and to suddenly discover that the peoples of the overseas departments and territories are “French”.

This significant silence has also been shared to a large degree by the metropolitan media, which are now engaging in their favourite sport: disinformation and lies.

Who remembers today that the abolition of slavery was a deal that consisted in the Republic’s indemnifying the slaveholder ancestors of the white Béké colons, who thereby appropriated all of the wealth produced by the descendants of the emancipated blacks?!

The CNSP bows before the mortal remains of the murdered trade-unionist, presents its condolences to the family and comrades of this martyr of the cause of equality of the peoples.

The CNSP appeals to the unions, associations and political parties of France to

  • Organise a work stoppage in every workplace and a minute of silence to the memory of Jacques Bino; and
  • To demand that the French government satisfy the legitimate demands of the colonies.

The CNSP recalls that the Constitution of France recognises that “humans are born free and equal in law” and that the United Nations Charter recognises the right of every people to self-determination.

The CNSP calls on the French trade-union, democratic and progressive movement to assume its full responsibility in the face of the present serious crisis of finance capital, which forces us to create the necessary relationship of forces to make the bosses pay for their crisis so that the workers are not divided by the poisonous racism of the French State and have to pay for the crisis in place of the CAC40 [the Paris stock exchange index].

The CNSP urges all the undocumented to fight and demonstrate with all documented workers as an antidote to the anti-social and colonialist strategy of the bosses and the French government.

NPA: Let's do it, like the workers of Guadeloupe and Martinique!

The statement below was released on February 16 by the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France, in solidarity with the workers of Guadeloupe and Martinique. The translation is by

* * *

The general strike in Guadeloupe began almost a month ago, and the strike movement has spread to Martinique over the last two weeks. Yet the government and management are still manoeuvring, stalling and buying time, refusing to meet the strikers’ demands.

Backed by the entire population holding the largest demonstrations ever seen in the Antilles, the strikers are demanding general price cuts and wage hikes: 300 euros in Martinique and 200 euros in Guadeloupe. Their representatives have reiterated the movement’s demands.

The French Antillean situation has its peculiarities. Its economy has in fact largely kept its old colonial structures. It is controlled by the bekes, descendants of slave-owning white settlers, who make fabulous profits through their monopoly of exports to and imports from France.

But there are also a great deal of commonalities. Like everywhere, the privileged want us to pay for their crisis. It’s this policy, driven by President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Medef (French Business Confederation), that is making the situation more and more unbearable, forcing workers to wage battle to defend their conditions of existence.

The first solidarity demonstration was held on February in Paris at the initiative of the NPA and other organisations.

The second demonstration, to take place on February 28, has been called by Antillean community organisations, with the support of many trade unions and political groups.

The leadership of the trade union confederations should initiate concrete actions such as fundraisers, rallies, walkouts — or rather should have initiated them several weeks ago — in order to help bring the general strike in the Antilles to victory.

Acting in solidarity with the workers and peoples of Guadeloupe and Martinique also means strengthening our own struggles and buttressing our own demands.

As stated by Alex Lollia, a leader of the Confederation of United Workers (CTU) of Guadeloupe: “The government fears that the watchwords of Guadeloupe and Martinique might be echoed by our fellow workers in France and that France too might be paralysed, which would have repercussions throughout Europe.

“We are holding out, waiting for French workers to join our battle.”

He is absolutely right! Nothing is more urgent than spreading this strike, beginning with the struggles that are developing, connecting all the links, local, regional, and national, among all trades and professions, both in the public and private sectors.

Faced with the bosses and government who don’t want to listen, the best way to express our solidarity would be to make sure we follow the example of the Antilles, creating a new balance of forces to enforce our urgent demands and to create a way out of the crisis consistent with the interests of the popular classes. 


ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE : Danik Ibrahim Zandwonis : Nous sommes des colonisés !

By Danik Ibrahim Zandwonis

We are colonised!

Translated jeudi 19 février 2009, par Amanda Cook

Danik Ibrahim Zandwonis is the editor in chief of Nouvelles Étincelles, the weekly newspaper of the Communist Party of Guadeloupe.

Surely, since the end of the Algerian War, the people of France have more or less forgotten this vocabulary, calling it a bit old fashioned, or maybe even antiquated. Colonist, colonies, colonialism. Who, in 2009, in France, still thinks of the Caribbean islands as “the last of France’s American colonies” ?

Still, when you scratch the surface, barely covered by the veneer of 64 years of “departmentalization”, what do you find ? Four centuries after the official end of slavery—in the generous shade of coconut trees, on the warm and sunny beaches, where the bluest waters come to rest—you find the brutal exploitation of colonial capitalism. The “Dom” [1], as they call Martinique, Réunion, Guyane, or Guadeloupe, are false paradises.

Two weeks ago, French Secretary of Overseas Territories Yves Jégo, a chronic liar, had a moment of honesty when he demanded to know, “Why, in the Pointe-à-Pitre supermarkets, does an ordinary toothbrush cost 4.50 Euros ?” Indeed, he had just unintentionally discovered Pandora’s box.

In the beautiful colonies’ ever-cheerful sun...for wealthy vacationers, life is harsh. Wages are desperately low. Employers are an oligarchy, having occupied these “islands” since the earliest days of slavery. After using their whips against generations of disenfranchised black men and women (thanks to Colbert’s Code Noir [3]), yesterday’s masters have simply become today’s bosses. The social relations have hardly evolved : yesterday they enforced the Code Noir with severity and rigor, and today, they are seemingly unable to conform to the Labor Code.

Thus, over the years, unions have formed and leftist parties have asserted their anti-colonialism. The Colonial State, buddy-buddy with the industrial and agricultural capitalists, has never denied its support of the rich and powerful. Far away from France—the birthplace of art, the home of human rights—the destitute worker is much less than an ordinary victim of exploitation : he is also colonized. Over there, in the Caribbean sun, a less-than-perfect life lies on the other side of the pretty “sea, sand, sun” postcard.

On January 20, 49 Guadeloupian labor, cultural, and political organizations rose up as one and decided to jam the colonial machine. They say “no” to Sarko, “yes” to another life, and perhaps to another status. The fight against “pwofitasyon” or exploitation has begun, and this is not the last you will hear about it.

Guadeloupe: Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind

- The French Caribbean department is facing what could be its most important social protest in its history
- Following traditional neglect, Paris has greeted Guadeloupe’s concerns with near indifference
- The socioeconomic situation on the island has deteriorated as has the gap with the métropole, which has never been so flagrant

The French Caribbean is facing serious turbulence. Guadeloupe, one of the French islands in the West Indies, has been completely paralyzed by a general strike since January 19. For more than a month, the population has been bitterly expressing anger towards the French government over the exorbitant cost of living on the archipelago by closing roads, schools, administrative services and public transportation. Moreover, gas stations have been shut down, provoking an oil shortage that has not yet been resolved.

While it started with peaceful rallies led by the “Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon” (LKP or “Stand Up Against Exploitation”), the protest has evolved into violent confrontations between small but daring youth groups and the police. The recent clashes culminated with the killing of a union activist as he was trying to avoid the barricades that have been set up all over the territory. On February 18, a police spokesman in Guadeloupe told Le Monde that “they were facing a guerilla situation.” The negotiations between the LKP and the government are barely improving and there is no clear sign of the island soon returning to its normal existence.

It is not the first time that the population of Guadeloupe has protested against the policies emanating from Metropolitan France. The history of the island is full of social movements that tend to end up as blood baths. This time, the global financial crisis and the ongoing social conflict in France have contributed sharply to the organization of what is probably already the most significant strike in the island’s history. But beyond the reaction to a dismal economic situation, there is a deep feeling that France has totally forgotten about its overseas territories. The de facto cleavage between those regions and what is called “métropole,” or mainland France, has never been so clearly defined. People from Guadeloupe, as well as Martinique and French Guyana, defiantly feel that they are second-class citizens, living in a colony rather than an “arrondissement” of Paris. The government, and President Nicolas Sarkozy in particular, usually are quite prompt to react on such matters, but failed to realize the complexity of the protest, which was deeply linked with the island’s past and French colonial history in general. The deafening silence from Paris has been interpreted by the protestors as an act of complete disregard, fueling the prevalent feeling of abandon found in Guadeloupe today.

A Focus on History
In order to begin to understand the current situation in Guadeloupe it is crucial to have a close look at its very singular history. The first French colonists arrived on the island in 1635, attracted by the extremely lucrative cultivation of sugarcane. At this time, France possessed only some land in North America, in the West Indies and a few trading posts in India; its era of massive colonization occurred much later, mostly in the 19th century. The settlers immediately implemented a slave-society based on the triangular trade, mostly organized by France. The economic relations with the métropole, which are at the core of today’s demands, were based on a system called “l’exclusif”, or “the exclusive”, which saw all the colonies absolutely reliant on France. The colonies, in the physiocratic tradition, produced, exported and imported, exclusively for the motherland, and relations with other countries were absolutely forbidden. The LKP claims that this system continues until today.

The French Revolution put an end to slavery in 1794, opening a little space for the emancipation of Guadeloupe. In reaction to the Revolution, and in order to avoid summary abolition, Martinique’s local leaders decided to submit to British domination. Yet, Napoleon reinstituted slavery in 1802, and his decision was followed by Martinique’s return to French control. Guadeloupe, on the other hand, suffered severe repression. In Guadeloupe, the stories of the massacres would remain in the public consciousness for the entire remaining century and even slavery’s ultimate abolition in 1848 did not assuage the situation. France wanted to maintain the existing feudal society and did everything it could in order to prevent economic self-sufficiency as well as social development. In 1900, the school attendance rate in Guadeloupe was only 14 percent of the age group whereas in France, in 1850, it was 50 percent. The situation at the end of the 19 century certainly contributed to Guadeloupe’s social discontent today.

False Region or True Colony?
After World War II, the decolonization process passed the West Indies. France decided to launch its assimilation process through a system called “départementalisation.” The République wanted to generously offer to those territories what they had been fighting to achieve for decades: their full recognition and integration as part of France. Yet, in the middle the process, independence movements began to gain credence in Guadeloupe, particularly during the 1960s. The decolonization process, primered by the British government and the model offered by the Cuban revolution, had an immense influence. However, those fits of anger have been determinedly strangled by France, perpetuating a long tradition of violence and reopening old wounds. In May 1967, riots in Guadeloupe ended with 87 dead, gunned-down by French authorities. This date remains a traumatic symbol in Guadeloupe’s troubled spirit even today.

In 1971, Aimé Césaire, one of the most renowned writers of the Négritude movement, declared in a Le Monde interview that, “the new system was even more colonialist than the former, as it created new favored populations.” The economic involvement of the state had never succeeded in hiding the profound sense of abandonment felt by the islanders. Moreover, it has helped in the creation of a new derogatory social class, which turned out to be nothing less than a veritable caste. First, the State gives a 40 percent bonus to any state employee that is transferred to Guadeloupe in order to compensate for the cost of living on the island. This policy has contributed to create a huge pay gap between these workers and the rest of the population. On top of this, the most important public positions are normally given to people coming from the mainland. Second, the “békés,” the belittling label for descendants of white landowners, still control most of the means of production. All these social realities contribute to the ethnic division of Guadeloupian society. Summarizing the situation, Pascal Perri, a French economist, said in Libération that “the political colonization had been replaced by an economic one, as a system of trusts had been implemented on the island.”

The Legacy From the Protests
For the first time in years, France is hearing something about Guadeloupe. Even more unusually, it is paying attention to it. For this to happen, the island had to face a month-long general strike and a life had to be lost. Without caricaturing the matter, it is extremely unusual to read about the overseas territories in the French media, except when something serious happens, like the plane crash in 2005 in Martinique, where 160 people died. Concern in mainland France for the overseas regions is almost nonexistent. The history of those regions is not integrated in school programs, not even in Guadeloupe or Martinique themselves. The politicians only visit when presidential elections are to be held in order to gain votes. The Ministry for the Overseas, in Paris, has lost half its workers in the recent years.

The LKP started the protests in order to assail the cost of living in Guadeloupe. The first demand of the movement was, and still is, a €200 monthly increase in minimum wages. However, beyond this very practical issue, there remains a strong feeling of isolation, which has been deepened since the beginning of the protests, as Paris allowed the situation to worsen without intervening. On January 19, the LKP called for a general strike. Almost all the island’s unions have a role in this movement. Schools, shops, public transportation and gas stations were closed as the population gathered in the streets to demonstrate. On January 24, gas supplies were already running short and the island was paralyzed for a week. Roadblocks riddled the territory, and it was only at this point that the government decided to start a dialogue. On January 30, almost 20,000 people gathered in Pointe à Pitre, the island’s most important city, organizing the biggest demonstration in Guadeloupe’s history. On February 1, Paris finally decided to send the Minister of the Overseas Territories, Yves Jégo, a measure that has been interpreted by the Guadeloupians as an illustration of France’s haughty disdain towards for the island.

At first, the government did not realize the scope of the mobilization and, moreover, already was very worried about the tense social context in the métropole. The social situation in France has been extremely complicated. Protests have been going on since January and a general strike is planned for March 19. In Guadeloupe however, no significant move came from the government until the first violent clashes occurred on February 16. The feeling that France is not all that solicitous about Guadeloupe could not have been more obvious than it was during February. Such a situation would have been unlikely to have happened in mainland France. Travel on the island has been blocked for a month, schools are still closed, and it remains extremely difficult to find gas. Even the police have said that such a situation was unthinkable of being witnessed in France, especially in terms of violence. Despite the fact that these territories have representatives in the French Assembly, it seems that their presence is more theoretical than germane. The island insists that the government let the situation deteriorate, and that they are being treated as second-class citizens. President Sarkozy, always ready to leap into action, did not consider that his presence was necessary and finally talked about Guadeloupe only after the assassination of a unionist took place on February 18. Moreover, the government of Prime Minister François Fillon, which is already facing social unrest in France, has totally failed to manage a parallel crisis there and now has to face the anger of a population that has been neglected for far too long.

A Dramatic Social Situation
Guadeloupe has been receiving assistance without a coherent developmental approach. This has meant that its economy has been maintained at a very low level, while dependency towards Paris has been, if anything, growing. In 2007, French subsidies for its overseas’ areas added up to €4.7 billion, nearly $6 billion. Paris has used these figures to argue how much it cares about the overseas regions. However, no one would argue that the subsidies have failed to efficiently develop the territories, specifically Guadeloupe.

Historically, agriculture was the engine of Guadeloupe’s growth, ensuring economic stability, by providing food for domestic consumption and export. Today, this sector is totally devoted to exports to the European Union, and France in particular, and does not even begin to cover Guadeloupian needs, as the island imports 10,000 tons of food per year. Moreover, the lack of diversification and modernization of the island’s economy and agriculture have put Pointe à Pitre in a very weak competitive position, especially as it now suffers from aggressive Latin American rivals. In order to counter the weakening of its agricultural sector, Paris strongly has emphasized its tourism sector during the 1990s. The leisure industry represents today the island’s primary source of income and it contributed towards radically changing the society into a service economy, with such service now employing 65 percent of Guadeloupe’s active population. But the transformation from agriculture to services may have been profitable to one sector, to the detriment of the other. Without any doubt, tourism has greatly developed Guadeloupe as it helped to create thousands of jobs and contributed to the renovation of its infrastructure. Yet, it also perpetuated the illusion that the island was developing. In fact, while the tourism industry was thriving, the economy kept on growing without real investment in other sectors. Today, tourism is also suffering from the competition of cheaper countries offering more economic packages, leading to a general stagnation of the local industry.

At the core of the increasingly tense economic situation, the LKP’s complaints are about the cost of living on the island along with the unfolding of its mounting dramatic social situation. These were manifestations of the basic incoherence of Guadeloupe’s entrapment in métropole policies. The lack of development in local production destined for the local market forced the island to rely almost exclusively on imports from the mainland, tremendously increasing the cost of the products there. In terms of energy, Guadeloupe is 90 percent dependent on France. This context leads to an aberrant observation: the cost of living in Guadeloupe is estimated to be four times more expensive than in France, while its GDP per person, €17,400, is almost two times inferior to that of mainland France (€29,765). Taking the European Union into consideration, the GDP of the island is 67 percent inferior to the European average. One could argue that the situation of Guadeloupe may be good when compared to the Caribbean in general. But the argument holds no weight in reality since Guadeloupe is not an independent country but a French department, and so has to be compared to other French regions. There, Guadeloupe is one of the poorest regions of the European Union and has the highest rate of unemployment among young people (55.7 percent). General unemployment reaches 22 percent, whereas it is about 7.2 percent in France. Moreover, 12.5 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, compared to 6.6 percent in France. This list of distresses is only a partial one but the message could not be clearer. The gap between the island and the métropole is enormous and it keeps on widening. This regression had been silently building up pressure until January’s popular protests thunderingly broke out.

Time For Negotiation
After more than one month of conflict, the island is still blocked. The negotiations between the authorities, the LKP and the Confederation of French employers are very tense. The LKP is adamant on its €200 pay raise claim, saying that the unions will not go further in the discussions before reaching an agreement on that issue. Moreover, the LKP declared on February 23 that they were ready to reinstall the roadblocks because “it is the only message Paris understands.” The action of the government is extremely complex. The huge social movement going on in mainland France and the ties it could create with the overseas are a primary source of concern. Its “contagion” to the rest of overseas territories is already a fact, as movements are also being launched in Martinique, French Guyana and Reunion. If the government grants social privileges to these departments, it will have a strong effect on mainland France claims, a few weeks before the planned March 19 general strike. The government and President Sarkozy are cornered and their social breathing space is extremely limited.

The President said during his TV address to the overseas territories on February 19 that he would personally take care of the situation, and would coordinate in the next few weeks a commission on the issue. Moreover, he said that he would visit Guadeloupe “as soon as the situation would be mellowed.” Yet, the President’s credit is seriously damaged, as demonstrated by his approval ratings, which fell 7 points in the last month, to 37 percent. Guadeloupe and the overseas territories in general, where living conditions and job perspectives are tremendously worse than in the métropole, need more than declarations. In terms of education, it is outrageous that to attend university, Guadeloupians are still obliged to go to France. Above all, the issue of the self development of the island is crucial. The time has come to propose a clear project to rebuild and restabilize Guadeloupe’s economy. The question of its regional integration must be addressed. Today, Guadeloupe has almost no relations with the Caribbean. Its neighbors are described by Paris as illegitimate competitors taking advantage of their cheap workforce. Moreover, it is significant that France never addressed the issue of using sugarcane as a resource to produce biofuels, an energy source that the island and the region in general could greatly benefit from.

Beyond the classical negotiations, Paris will have to face a much more tricky issue, the dramatic loss of confidence -perhaps irreversible- that is building up in overseas territories. The Guadeloupian population feels deeply insulted and is waiting for very strong signals and measures. France has to work on symbols as well as economic issues if even a semblance of the existing relationship is to survive. In 2003, the Guadeloupian population rejected a referendum on autonomy. Guadeloupe, and this is an important distinction, is not asking for independence but equality of treatment and recognition. During the ongoing protests, very few leaders are calling for independence. Although the relationship with Paris has always been confrontational, the Guadeloupian identity is not built on the rejection of mainland France. However, President Sarkozy declared that the issue of the island’s autonomy will be discussed within the frame of the overseas commission.

A first step would be to give the initiative to people from the region. As of now, there are only people from mainland France working in the Ministry for the Overseas. Moreover, the question of the island’s highest public responsibilities, systematically awarded to non Guadeloupians, will soon have to be tackled. The government has to send a message of meaningful integration instead of pursuing what is considered by many as little more than “charity policies.” This challenge of recovering people’s confidence as genuine citizens of France will be as hard as rehabilitating the economic life of the island. Paris has now said to Guadeloupe that the issue will have its priority in the coming weeks. Yet, the situation is still tense. Moreover, Martinique is beginning to simmer and may get worse as violent confrontations occurred, confirming the government’s fear of contagion, as well as proving that only a well-thought out and sensible global solution would provide adequate response.
This analysis was prepared by Romain Le Cour Grandmaison
March 2nd, 2009
Word Count: 3000


The Final Week of Negotiations

A tentative agreement was reached  In the wee hours of Friday morning, February 27. After the tentative agreement was announced, there was great joy and celebration in the streets of Guadeloupe. But over the weekend, the French authorities, through the French-appointed Prefect and the main employers' association, the MEDEF, went to the media to announce that an agreement had been reached and that everyone should go back to work on Monday.

This outraged the LKP Strike Collective and the workers and people of Guadeloupe. No agreement had been signed. And it was up to the Black majority on the island, organized in their own LKP Strike Collective, the only recognized leadership of the mass movement, to announce whether the strike was to end or whether it was to continue. It was not up to the Beké, the white ruling elite on the island, and its colonial paymasters in France to speak on behalf of the strikers -- especially when they had not signed an agreement.

The people felt that the government and the employers were trying to pull a fast one; that is, end the strike without signing a binding agreement. And there was additional reason for resentment and distrust: Two weeks earlier, the French Minister of Overseas Departments and Territories, Yves Jégo, had announced during his trip to Guadeloupe, where he had joined the negotiating team, that he supported the LKP Strike Collective's demand for a 200 euro increase in the monthly minimum wage. But no sooner had Jégo made this declaration than he was disavowed by French Prime Minster Francois Fillon and ordered back to Paris. This dashed the people's hope that the strike would come to an end, with a victory for the workers.

On Monday, March 2, the LKP Strike Collective disclosed the tentative agreement: All the main demands of the strikers had been won. Negotiations were to resume late Monday morning with the Prefect, the MEDEF, and the Small Business Employers' Association to finalize and sign the agreement.

But there was now a hitch: The MEDEF employers' association now reneged on the part of the agreement involving the 200 euro increase in the minimum wage. According to the agreement, the French government would pay 100 euros per worker (out of the 200 euro increase) for a period of three years by releasing the employers from paying into pension and healthcare funds for the workforce -- but after three years, that extra charge would have to be paid once again by the employers organized in the MEDEF. Now the MEDEF was demanding that the French government assume that 100 euro charge indefinitely.

This sent things back to Paris. From the morning of Monday, March 2 to the evening of Wednesday, March 5, heated and angry debates, negotiations and mass mobilizations organized by the LKP Strike Collective were the order the day in Guadeloupe.

Ultimately the workers and people of Guadeloupe prevailed. At 8 p.m. on March 4, an agreement was signed: A First Victory -- a huge victory -- had been won!

-- Alan Benjamin