[The general strike in Guadeloupe has been completely off the radar screens of American media outlets. Labourstart is the exception.]
After a one-month general strike, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe has descended into riots and civil unrest. French authorities have called for calm after Jacques Bino, a union activist, was caught in crossfire between armed youths and police in the capital Pointe-a-Pitre.
The strike and demonstrations were organized by the Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), a coalition of unions and leftists and began on January 20 with an immediate goal of increasing wages for low-income workers by 200 euro (£177) per month. The UGTG (General Union of Guadeloupe Workers) is the largest organization in the LKP.
The demands and grievances of the strikers have expanded over time to include a call for ending the domination of the economy by domination of the economy by “Bekes,” or local white families that trace their roots to the colonial landlords and sugar plantation slave owners of the 17th and 18th centuries. By some estimates these families own 90 per cent of the island’s wealth including productive land, food distribution networks, and many stores and shops.
Christiane Taubira, a French member of parliament for the overseas department of French Guiana on the south American continent notes:
“A caste holds economic power and abuses it.” 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.
The social discord is “exacerbating” racial tensions, she said.
“Guadeloupe, it’s ours, Guadeloupe, it doesn’t belong to them,” is the chant heard at recent protests on the island, with a similar refrain heard on Martinique, both referring to the Bekes.
That antipathy was heightened by recent remarks by one of Martinique’s richest men, Alain Huygues-Despointes, which scandalised many here.
Huygues-Despointes, a white, said in a documentary screened on French television late last month that one reason for avoiding inter-racial marriage was that he wanted to “preserve his race.”
The French government will make a new wage offer to unions on Guadeloupe where riot police have struggled to maintain control, a month into a general strike that is paralysing the Caribbean island.
”Mediators have come up with a proposal which I am going to approve and which will be submitted to employers and the unions,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon told French radio RTL on Thursday.
”This allows us to get very close to the financial goals of the workers.”
The alliance behind the protest movement, LKP, blames the government for letting the dispute drag on until frustrated young people beyond the control of LKP turned to violence.
They have blocked roads, torched businesses and cars, and looted shops this week.
While the government had offered numerous concessions to the protesters, it had until Thursday rejected their key demand, that it lower business taxes to give companies some room to increase workers’ pay by the desired 200 euros.
With discontent simmering in mainland France as well, Paris was wary of creating a precedent in Guadeloupe that it would have to extend to the mainland.
The proposed settlement would not involve cutting business taxes but would bring forward the implementation of a new benefit for low wage workers and unemployed people, according to Yves Jego, the minister in charge of overseas territories.
Strike leaders in Guadeloupe agreed to resume negotiations after an offer from the French president aimed at ending weeks of protests on the Caribbean island.
But Elie Domota, leader of a coalition of unions and leftist groups that launched the strike on January 20, did not call off the strike after French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered millions of euros in new subsidies.
“At the moment, the proposals seem particularly vague to us,” Domota said after meeting with the island’s prefect, Nicolas Desforges, and two French government envoys.
Domota, leader of the Collective Against Exploitation (LKP) coalition, said negotiations that had been officially suspended for a week would resume Friday at 1900 GMT.
A Domota confidant, Jean-Louis Nomertin, was not impressed by Sarkozy’s offer. “Nicolas Sarkozy did not say anything,” he said.
Sarkozy announced earlier more than half a billion euros in new subsidies for the Caribbean island, a tourist destination that suffers from the highest unemployment rates and most expensive living costs in France.
“Today we have a duty to listen to our fellow citizens and we have, at the same time, the duty to ensure the rapid return of civil order,” he said after holding crisis talks in Paris with lawmakers from the Caribbean.
He promised to fly to Guadeloupe to inaugurate a three-month exercise to gather opinions on how to reform mainland France’s relations with its overseas departments, former imperial outposts that now enjoy full political rights.
Sarkozy said 580 million euros (736 million dollars) would be put aside for action to raise living standards in the overseas departments.
Listen to a Radio France Internationale report here.