COHA in the Public ArenaGuadeloupe

What next for Guadeloupe?

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March 5, 2009

Union leaders in Guadeloupe have agreed to end a 44-day-old general strike but will the scars of the unrest heal anytime soon?

The announcement came after the LKP (League Against Profiteering) collective signed a deal with officials and business owners in the French department to raise workers’ pay and lower the cost of basic goods.

But more worryingly, the strike exposed underlying tensions between workers on the island and a wealthy white minority, many of whom descended from slave-era colonists.

It led President Nicholas Sarkozy to order a review of how France’s overseas territories are run.

Mr Sarkozy, already unpopular, the Caribbean unrest presents a big challenge.

France is used to strikes and ethnic unrest on its European mainland, but torched cars and trashed stores on its far-flung islands are stoking worries regarding other overseas departments.

Wealthy elite

It raises uncomfortable questions about race, France’s efforts to define itself in the 21st century and the legacy of France’s once mighty empire that today stretches across the globe from the North Atlantic and Caribbean to the South Pacific.

While legally a full part of France and the European Union, Guadeloupe is one of the poorest corners of the national territory with 23 percent unemployment, more than twice the mainland rate, and a high cost of living.

Some residents on the island alleged that the wealthy, white elite was controlling imports and prices.

Private sector bosses deny profiteering, and have warned that the LKP’s wage demands will simply push up the jobless in a region already heavily dependent on state subsidies and public sector jobs.

The strikes themselves crippled first Guadeloupe and then Martinique and on several occasions erupted into violence.

Two weeks ago, union leader Jacques Bino was shot dead by rioting youths at a barricade in Guadeloupe’s main city, Pointe-a-Pitre.

Hundreds of police and gendarmes have been deployed from France in recent weeks to support local security forces and help restore order. Dozens of protesters have been arrested since the strikes began.

The 4 March agreement covered a wide range of issues, including the price of bread, the hiring of teachers and reduced air fares.

Talks continue

But most importantly, it will see the wages of the lowest-paid workers supplemented with a 200-euro ($254) monthly payment.

Prices on Guadeloupe and Martinique are generally higher while wages are lower than on the mainland. Unemployment is three times as high, and GDP per person just over half as big.

Negotiations on other union demands – including the lowering of the prices of 54 basic goods, are continuing.

Guadeloupe Prefect Nicolas Desforges, the highest representative of the French state, hailed a “new departure” for the island.

“This is an important moment,” he said. “(Guadeloupe) must get back to work from tomorrow. It must make up the delay.”

“It must work twice as hard because, in order to be paid an additional 200 euros, there must be companies to pay that sum, and for them to pay it, they must prosper, and for them to prosper, they must work.”

But LKP leader Elie Domota warned that unions would resume the strike if the government or businesses reneged on their promises.

Demands ‘justified’

“This means work will resume, but we’ll remain mobilised over the coming days and weeks,” he said.

Negotiations were continuing in nearby Martinique over a similar stoppage.

Polls suggest the troubles abroad are costing President Sarkozy public opinion in mainland France.

In a recent poll by BVA/Orange, 78 percent of respondents considered the Guadeloupe protesters’ demands “justified.”

But what of the future?

Independence seems to have been ruled out as the French West Indies residents fear they won’t be able to cope on their own.

“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,” said Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, in an analysis prepared for the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

“The Guadeloupean population feels deeply insulted and is waiting for very strong signals and measures,” he added.

Experts also believe a resolution to the Caribbean issues have a bearing on mainland housing projects, where discrimination and unemployment helped drive the 2005 eruption of anger, largely by black and Arab youth.

“How France handles — or doesn’t know how to handle, or mishandles — its colonial heritage, this is the problem afflicting France’s suburbs,” said Michel Giraud, researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris.