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Guadeloupe: Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind

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– 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.