This was an entirely new story to me when I saw an article in the Times yesterday, and a quick search tells me it hasn't been the subject of a DKos post yet. It's closer to your back yard than mine here in the UK, though as the Times piece points out, what's happening right now in Martinique, Guadelupe, Reunion and French Guyana has implications beyond the French Departments and the Caribbean. I'll fill you in below the fold.
Guadelupe is a popular tourism stop and business area for the French, comprised of one large and several small islands. It is an overseas Department--something more than a colony, something less than an integral part of France, though that is what it is supposed to mean. As a Department, it uses the Euro as its currency (as do Martinique, Reunion and French Guyana). It is something of a banana republic in many ways. Not only are bananas its main cash crop, but the majority Black and mixed-race population live very different lives than the minority French population.
As a direct result of the recession, the cost of living has been soaring in the Caribbean. Unemployment has increased as well, so families have fewer euros with which to buy more expensive items. Just below this simmers long-running issues of colonialism and racism. As in Haiti, which is more familiar to most Americans, you can pretty much guess someone's income and class position by the gradation of their skin colour. (Although since this is France, you can't even cite the official statistics that would make this crystal clear--collecting demographic data on employment and income is not legal, so there's no "proof" of what everyone knows, leaving islanders in a massive Catch-22.) Shops on the island are not owned only by whites, but also by Indian and Chinese immigrants--but not often by Blacks. Prices for food, clothing and other essentials are high, and there has also been a massive real estate bubble in the past few years that has driven up home prices by 5, 6 or 7 times what they were. This affects not only those who might have been able to afford to buy a home, but also those who rent, as former rentals and farmland are given over to luxury homes for French expats.
On the 20th of January, the main trade union on Guadelupe declared a general strike, with the backing of 47 other organisations--these include smaller unions, civic groups, farmers organisations, etc. This followed on from the formation of a coalition last year (the Collective Against Extreme Exploitation, the LKP), its development of a platform with over 100 demands related mostly to employment and economic matters, and two days of mass demonstrations in December over these issues that got no response from the French government. The government was not willing to meet to discuss the platform, hence the demonstrations.
I haven't been able to dig up the full list but here are some of the top items on it:- The immediate drop of 50 cents in fuel prices (gasoline costs double what it does in France, a big part of that is an import duty imposed by France as a type of tax). - The decline in prices of all essential goods and all taxes. - An increase in the minimum wage to 200 euros (this is per month--note that prices of basic food items in Guadelupe are considerably higher than they are in France and you can see that this is not asking much!). - The decline in the price of water and transport of passengers. - Contracts for all precarious workers, public and private (much of the island's Black population does day labour or agency work) - The development of production to meet the needs of the population. - The right to education and training for youth and workers of our country. - Priority in hiring and positions of responsibility for Guadeloupeans and end of racism in hiring (the strikers say that French companies operating in Guadelupe hire their staff in France, and rarely hire locally even for low-paid jobs). - Freezing rents for an indefinite period and for the year 2009, canceling the increase of 2.98% (most Black residents of Guadelupe live in social housing and the rents are set by the government). - Set aside 50,000 hectares of agricultural area as a protected agricultural zone and setting up a committee for its annual evaluation (Guadelupe exports massive amounts of food to Europe in the form of cash crops, but residents eat mostly imported food...). - Exemption from taxes for the benefit of farmers throughout the country. - Representation of trade unions in Guadeloupe in all companies and joint bodies (ASSEDIC, Social Security, CAF, AGEFOS, SME, Fong, CIF ...). - Commencement of proceedings for the reconstruction of the hospital. - The urgent development of transport networks. - Taking into account in the media the language and culture of Guadeloupe through the presence of representatives of cultural associations in the boardroom.
A few weeks ago the French government started sending over planeloads of police, which is of course worrying to the Guadeloupeans. The last time they had unrest in the late 1960s, the same thing happened and over 100 striking workers were killed. And that was in a strike limited to the construction industry, not a general strike situation. Two days ago, tear gas was used. Yesterday the expected happened, as French security forces waded into a demonstration. Shots were fired (some may have been fired by demonstrators but as in all situations like this no one is sure) and a union member was killed by the police.
In the past two weeks, the unrest has started to spread beyond Guadelupe and into other Caribbean French departments: Martinique, Reunion and French Guyana. There had been solidarity protests at first but now similar slates of demands are being put forwards. The French government is doing its best to hold a united front, but there is pressure on three additional fronts:
- Participants in the recent general strike in France made explicit ties between their strike and the one in Guadelupe.
- Many residents of the banlieus (poor/working-class suburbs) in France are of Afro-Caribbean descent and are hearing the news daily from friends and families, expectations are that any move against the Caribbean strikers will have serious repercussions at home.
- The great fear is that unrest will spread to Haiti, which is poised for an eruption... and where a good segment of the desperate population is armed, which is not generally the case in these somewhat more prosperous departments.
Today's development is a promise of 580m euros to the islands and a "vast programme of modernisation" by Sarkozy, but the general strike will continue during negotiations. Understandably, residents worry that this promised money will not benefit Black workers but will instead further enrich French expats who could get grants for expanding their tourism operations, corporate farms, and security arrangements.
I think this story has been undercovered in the US press, and it's on your doorstep. If unrest spreads to Haiti as well, the implications could be huge. There are also fears that similar activities may hit the British Caribbean as well.