Guadeloupe – Another French Caribbean Hot Spot

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-Economic inequities prompt unrest

-Paris refueling unrest due to flawed economic policies

-Government fails in authorizing policies

-Attended by Guadeloupe’s well-fare

The social unrest that plagued the French départments d’outre-mer earlier this year has largely subsided. Yet Paris’ problems with its organically connected Caribbean dependences are far from resolved. In fact, they’ve only just begun.

On January 19, the Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (LKP, or “Stand up Against Exploitation”) movement initiated a series of peaceful protests on the island of Guadeloupe. Initially, local island leaders sought relief from the exorbitant cost of living on the island, as well as called for a €200 monthly increase of the minimum wage, but afterward the demonstrations quickly spiraled out of control as islanders stepped up their militancy. Their ire proved to be contagious as the other French overseas départments, Martinique, French Guyana, and Réunion (off the coast of Madagascar), were all taken over by some degree of pandemonium. Schools, roads and gas stations were closed, essentially paralyzing each of the islands.

Guadeloupians had good reason to revolt. The cost of living on the French-Caribbean island is four times more than in France, yet the average GDP per capita is merely half that of their mainland counterparts . Moreover, growing unemployment rates and deepening rural poverty continue to be a constant concern on the island.

Despite the fact that Paris continually has awarded sizeable subsidies to its overseas territories (some $6 billion in 2007), sharp disparities remain between the quality of life in the métropole and that in the overseas départments. However, while it is true that Guadeloupian protesters were driven partially by monetary concerns, their problems and motivations are far more complex.

A general malaise of neglect, fueled by episodic insubordination, is being experienced throughout the French overseas départments. Although all of them have representation in the French Assembly, in reality their political influence in Paris is negligible. To a large degree, mainland French representatives only travel back to these territories during election years or for sun-drenched weekend winter getaways. In spite of the island’s formal status as a départment of France — from which it undoubtedly benefits economically and socially — there is an underlying, although waning, sense of deference on the part of Guadeloupians to mainland France. For many, granting the overseas territories their independence would seem to be a practical solution to an inherently fractious situation. Yet, it is not all that cut and dry because Guadeloupians overwhelmingly rejected a 2003 referendum that, if passed, would have markedly increased the island’s autonomy. Rather than increased monetary aid or demanding self-government, Guadeloupians are simply requesting acknowledgement that they are, in fact, a part of the French Republic.

President Nicolas Sarkozy was induced into taking action after one month of turmoil on the island by sending the Minister of the Overseas Territories, Yves Jégo, in a move seen by many as a desultory act meant to superficially placate alienated islanders. Indeed, inadequate French political recognition of its frustrated Caribbean kin is likely to continue long after the anger in Point-à-Pitre appears to have mellowed. On March 4, an agreement was brokered between Paris, the LKP, along with local business owners to raise wages and reduce the cost of basic essentials such as gas, water, and bread. The tense situation, at least for the moment, has abated and protestors have gone home. However, the unease between Guadeloupe and metropolitan France is a relatively static relationship that has yet to be fairly addressed by straightforward and high minded policies emanating from Paris.

The French government provides all-important attention to Guadeloupe primarily in the form of monetary grants. But it would be far more advantageous to its residents to simply recognize their island as a part of the French Republic, not just in a celebratory manner, but also functionally. Sarkozy will head to the French Caribbean in the coming months to visit both Guadeloupe and Martinique, where he will lead a États Généraux, a phrase originating during the French Revolution to signify a meeting of the greatest importance. The Sarkozy administration would show great wisdom to strive to unite Guadeloupe with the rest of France indeed as well as in sentiment, rather than dole out titles and emoluments in an attempt to appease the locals, but failing to satisfy their basic essentials.