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Guadeloupe…`They (the French) Want Beirut; They’ve Got Beirut’

February 19, 2009

As of this writing, the French island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean appears to be in full revolt. Violent protests erupted against high prices and low wages there. Rioting broke out throughout the island several days ago and yesterday, one Jacques Bino, described in the mainstream press as `a union activist’ in his 50s’ became the first casualty. A number of police have been injured too, wounded in the crossfire. Bino was shot to death next to a roadblock set up by protesters, where armed youth and the police had exchanged gunfire. Local political leaders worry that the situation is spiraling out of control.

Negotiations with the French government did take place but then broke down, only increasing the frustrations and tensions. By last week the island, known as yet another one of those idyllic Caribbean retreats, was transformed into something approaching a war zone. There has been a wave of property damage – cars overturned, rock throwing, and dozens of other incidents. Earlier in the week, protesters set buildings and cars on fire, looted shops, smashed storefront windows and clashed with police in Point-a-Pitre and at least two other towns.

Thousands of tourists have also fled the island and neighboring Martinique

In the southern coastal town of Sainte-Anne, youths forced their way into the city hall and occupied it. As often happens in countries so heavily reliant on tourism, the violence has led thousands of tourists to cancel vacations on both Guadeloupe and Martinique, this at the height of the tourist season. Roadblocks have been set up by demonstrators all over the country, including several barring access to the country’s airport, preventing tourists from leaving.

Besides Bino’s death, at least 39 persons have been detained by the island’s police force which has been beefed up by the addition of another 500 French policemen, flown in by helicopter from other French possessions in the region (French Guyana, St. Maarten’s, Martinique). The French government appealed for calm as the protestors on the island open fired on the police and set up road blocks and barrier throughout the island.“They want Beirut”, one protester told Liberation newspaper (one of France’s largest), `they’ve got Beirut’.

The deeper concern is that the crisis will be contagious enough to spark similar upsurges in France itself, where only three weeks ago no less than 2.5 million (yep `million) people took to the streets of France’s cities and towns to protest Sarkozy’s recovery plan for not taking into consideration the needs and fears of France’s working class and poor. The demonstrations were so angry that it pressured the President to add another 1.1 Billion Euros for social projects in addition to the 27 Billion Euros his government had already alloted to address the crisis. Chances are he’ll have to address the grievances of the Guadeloupeans in a similar vein or else face dire consequences. So…perhaps the idea that politics can not be made on the streets is not as obsolete as some would have us believe.

Poverty…

The social conflict in Guadaloupe escalated in recent days from peaceful protests against the growing poverty of the islands inhabitants to armed confrontation with the authorities. There are fears that the unrest could spill over into nearby French possessions and to mainland France as well. A similar strike, with similar demands, started more than a week ago on the the neighboring French island of Martinique, which like Guadeloupe is hugely popular with mainland French tourists seeking tropical winter sun. Until now the Martinique protests have not turned violent.

The Guadeloupe events need to be understood in their global context, as a part of a fast escalating level of global poverty. As Immanuel Wallerstein points out in a recent commentary:

“…there is less and less money for daily consumption of all kinds for the bottom 90% of the world’s population (and it’s not so good for the top 10%). People are getting restless. Just in the last month, we have seen people in the streets protesting economic difficulties in a growing number of countries – Greece, Russia, Latvia, Great Britain, France, Iceland, China, South Korea, Guadeloupe, Reunion, Madagascar, Mexico – and probably a lot more that haven’t been noticed by the world press. In fact, it’s been relatively mild up to now, but the governments are all on edge.’”

Protests like those in the Caribbean have also taken place in the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, also a French territory, Haunted by the May 1968 social uprising as well as mass protest movements that brought France to a standstill both in 1995 and 2006, the Sarkozy Government in Paris is on edge. Paris is scrambling to defuse the situation before it spreads and hits home. It is interesting, almost amusing, to watch Sarkozy, whom I would describe as France’s version of Bush, a French neo-con, in the end an arrogant little twirp who wanted to crush with force the demonstrations for jobs and better edcuation in Paris’ mostly North African suburbs, squirming for his political life now, and transformed by the global crisis into something of a Keynesian, forced to make major concessions to French labor and left sentiment at home, and now shivering in his overpriced Hong Kong tailored suits over rebellions in France’s Caribbean `departments’.

The violence in Guadeloupe comes as a culmination of a general strike now five weeks in during, which essentially paralyzed the island. It begun on January 20 against the island’s high living costs, low wages and growing unemployment only now aggravated by the global downturn. Paris has refused to bow to strikers’ demands for a $250 monthly pay raise for low-wage workers.

In response to the economic crisis there, a movement led by an umbrella group calling itself the `Collective Against Extreme Exploitation’ , a coalition of unions and leftist groups, came into being, calling for increased state aid from France to improve wages and working conditions. Claiming that their concerns have been ignored by Paris for many years, the protestors want the French government to subsidize wage increases and institute price controls, prices having been kept high by the island’s long-standing monopolies, some dating from the colonial era.

“Legally, Guadeloupe is as French as the Gironde.” a recent on-line article from The Economist recounts. It is to France akin to what Hawaii is to the United States, formally incorporated although geographically separated from Paris. `Fly in from former British colonies like Dominica or St Lucia’ – the piece continues – `and Guadeloupe looks a model of prosperity and, normally, good order. Schools, hospitals and salaries meet French standards.’

But prices are up to 30% higher than in France, says a businessman in Martinique. Even milk, cheese and lettuce are freighted across the Atlantic. Unemployment stands at 22% – against around eight percent on mainland France, while gross domestic product per person here is just 60 percent of the French average. Yet the French West Indies are much richer than their neighbors in the Caribbean, with which they have few economic, political or cultural links. France subsidizes flights to its departments in the Caribbean in the interests of national cohesion, and provides the same public services to residents there.

All indications are that Guadeloupe has rich agricultural potential and could easily produce a wide variety of agricultural products that would make the island self sufficient. But in order to do so it needs some protection from the cheaper agricultural imports from France that flood its market at cheaper prices than Gualeloupean (suppose that would be the correct term) farmers could produce. But forced-fed the produce from French agribusiness has driven many local producers out of business. Similar results have been triggered in other Caribbean islands – Jamaica comes to mind – whose agricultural sectors were forced open by IMF structural adjustment programs, giving a field day to more cheaply produced industrial farmed products, undermining the local farming sectors.

“Unemployment here is the third highest in the European Union. Away from the luxury hotels and resorts there is a severe economic situation that has angered a lot of people.” Underlying much of the unrest in Guadeloupe and Martinique is anger within the local Afro-Caribbean community – many of whom are descendants of slaves brought to the island by France – that the vast majority of wealth and land remain in the hands of colonial descendants. Local white businessmen are blamed for the high prices.

A History of Racism

On both Guadeloupe and Martinique, the economy is largely in the hands of the “Bekes,” the local name for a tiny white minority who are mostly the descendants of colonial landlords and sugar plantation slave owners of the 17th and 18th centuries. The islands have the same supermarket chains that are found on mainland France, but they charge higher prices for the same goods. “There is a monopoly problem, that of an insular economy which is the heir to colonial trading posts,” said the French minister of overseas affairs, Yves Jego.

“A caste holds economic power and abuses it,” said Christiane Taubira, a French member of parliament for the overseas department of French Guyana on the south American continent. She warned Sunday that the situation in Guadeloupe was “not far from social apartheid” but added that “the leaders of the LKP are not anti-white racists.

“They are exposing a reality,” she told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper. Rama Yade, the only black minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government, said that over and above the problem of the cost of living, there is “a problem with the distribution of wealth” on the islands.

Guadeloupe: On the Global Periphery…

Guadeloupe is a classic case of a peripheral economy.

The main sources of wealth are tourism, agriculture, light industry and services. The traditional sugar cane is slowly being replaced by other agricultural products including bananas, ,eggplant, guinnep, noni, sapotilla, paroka, pikinga, giraumon squash, yam, gourd, plantain, christophine, monbin, prunecafé, cocoa, jackfruit, pomegranate, and many varieties of flowers. Other vegetables and root crops are cultivated for local consumption, although Guadeloupe is still dependent on imported food, mainly from France.

Guadeloupe remains one of France’s few remaining colonies in the world and is considered an integral part of France, one of 26 departments (French word for state or province) that has this status. The island’s population of less than 500,000 (as of 2006) consists mostly of former African slaves but includes significant French and Indian (from India) elements as well as some others, Lebanese/Syrians and Chinese.

Unfortunately, the island often finds itself in the path of some of the worst hurricanes to hit the Americas, among them the 1989, category 4 hurricane Hugo which caused extensive damage, left more than 35,000 homeless, destroyed 10,000 homes, 100 percent of the banana crops and 60 percent of the sugarcane crops.

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