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French colonies in the Caribbean demand decent pay, end to racism

February 25, 2009

General strike against the economic crisis hits Guadeloupe and Martinique

by Abayomi Azikiwe, Pan-African News Wire

France sent hundreds of gendarmes – police – replete with riot gear to Guadeloupe to put down a month-long general strike demanding higher wages and lower prices but, despite the death of one of their leaders, the Guadeloupean people won’t back down. Like Haiti, the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, also gripped by a general strike, are populated by the descendants of enslaved Africans and were colonized by France. Haitians revolted, defeating Napoleon’s armies in 1804, becoming the first Black independent country in the world. Guadeloupe and Martinique remain colonies. Though racism keeps all three islands dirt poor, it’s apparent in this confrontation that the people of Guadeloupe have plenty of pride and courage. - Photo: LKP
France sent hundreds of gendarmes – police – replete with riot gear to Guadeloupe to put down a month-long general strike demanding higher wages and lower prices but, despite the death of one of their leaders, the Guadeloupean people won’t back down. Like Haiti, the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, also gripped by a general strike, are populated by the descendants of enslaved Africans and were colonized by France. Haitians revolted, defeating Napoleon’s armies in 1804, becoming the first Black independent country in the world. Guadeloupe and Martinique remain colonies. Though racism keeps all three islands dirt poor, it’s apparent in this confrontation that the people of Guadeloupe have plenty of pride and courage. - Photo: LKP
Guadeloupe, a French colony in the Caribbean, has been brought to a standstill as a result of trade union actions over the last several weeks. The underlying reasons for the work stoppage stem from the global economic crisis and the total political control of Guadeloupe by the French imperialist state under the leadership of Conservative President Nicholas Sarkozy.

The strike began on Jan. 20 amid rising prices and worsening living conditions among the masses in these islands located some 600 km from the Dominican Republic and Haiti and 7,000 km away from mainland France. On Feb. 14, the leader of the Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), a coalition of unions and political parties that have carried out the strike, has accused the French government of sending riot police to Guadeloupe in order to assassinate its organizers.

“Today, given the number of gendarmes who have arrived in Guadeloupe armed to the teeth, the French state has chosen its natural path: to kill Guadeloupeans as usual,” says Elie Domota. Domota, who is the leader of the LKP, is also the secretary general of the General Union of Guadeloupe Workers (UGTG).

To slow the French police, the people of Guadeloupe are erecting barricades across the roads to block their vehicles. The day after this confrontation in the town of Gosier, one of the strike leaders was killed at a barricade. - Photo: LKP
To slow the French police, the people of Guadeloupe are erecting barricades across the roads to block their vehicles. The day after this confrontation in the town of Gosier, one of the strike leaders was killed at a barricade. - Photo: LKP
Domota’s statement came amid the forced re-opening of petrol stations and supermarkets, where armed French police units stood guard to protect the properties from striking workers. The workers have demanded that escalating fuel and food prices be lowered. The French government conceded to some of these demands and utilized these concessions to justify the re-opening of the gas stations and food stores.

Citing the historic role of France in maintaining political and economic control of the tropical islands, Domota said, “Every time there have been demonstrations in Guadeloupe to demand pay raises, the response of the state has been repression, notably in May 1967 in Pointe-a-Pitre, where there were 100 deaths of building workers massacred by the gendarmes.”

On Feb. 16, the French colonial authorities arrested approximately 50 organizers and leaders of the LKP. In an appeal issued by the strike committee leadership, they convey the determination of the Sarkozy government to break the strike:

“As he had promised, Jego (the French minister appointed to end the strike) has decided to slam down on LKP and on the people of Gwadloup. In this sense, the repressive forces are hitting as hard as they can. They have already arrested some 10 people in the town of Gosier and two in Sainte Rose, whether they were demonstrators or just passers-by.

“Besides, an entire battalion has been detailed to surround some 50 people (demonstrators or passers-by) still in the town of Gosier; they are closing in, obviously meaning to hit them and arrest them.”

Maintaining a general strike – shutting down everything from stores to schools – for over a month takes extraordinary organizing and unity. In Guadeloupe, everybody pitches in, and many women are on the front lines. - Photo: LKP
Maintaining a general strike – shutting down everything from stores to schools – for over a month takes extraordinary organizing and unity. In Guadeloupe, everybody pitches in, and many women are on the front lines. - Photo: LKP
LKP leader Jacques Bino, 50, was shot and killed Feb. 17 at a roadblock erected by residents of a low-income housing project, reported the World Socialist Web Site. “The state and the bosses bear the full responsibility for the death today of Jacques Bino,” CGTG General Secretary Jean-Marie Nomertin told RFO Radio.

“According to our information, it’s the youth who first made a call” to the police for help, he said. “The police refused to come …. Meanwhile, our comrade was losing blood and dying.” Some 3,000 mourners turned Bino’s funeral on Sunday, Feb. 22, into a political demonstration, demanding higher wages and respect from the French government.

Mediapart published a letter the next day sent from the hospital bed of Alex Lollia, a philosophy teacher and a member of LKP, recounting his experiences of police violence and racism on the night of Feb. 16. The letter said Lollia and his trade union comrades “were doing everything in our power to keep things calm and to steward the demonstrators …. [W]e experienced a tornado of baton blows when we had already left the side of the main road …. They surrounded me ….

“While I was being kicked in the stomach as I lay on the ground, they said, ‘We saw your filthy face on the telly; we’ll smash it for you so you can’t show it anymore. We’ll smash you filthy niggers, nigger dogs.’”

The letter continued, “I saw them dragging a woman from the neighborhood by the hair who was showing her indignation because they beat me.”

On Feb. 14, thousands of workers demonstrated in the town of Le Moule. The marchers walked through the area chanting, “Guadeloupe is ours, it’s not theirs.”

This slogan, of course, related to the economic dominance of the white French minority known as “Bekes.” It is this class of the population that exercises effective control over the more than 400,000 Africans who were brought to the islands during 18th and 19th centuries as slaves.

Social apartheid in the French colony

A French member of parliament with the overseas department of French Guiana on the South American continent said on Feb. 15 that the conditions in Guadeloupe are “not far from social apartheid. In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, Christine Taubira stated that “the leaders of the LKP are not anti-white racists. They are exposing a reality … a caste holds economic power and abuses it.”

The strike has closed most shops, restaurants, schools, banks and government offices. France has adamantly refused to grant the majority of the demands of the LKP, particularly a monthly raise of EUR200 ($259US) for the 45,000 poorest workers.

This Guadeloupean at the Gosier barricade makes it clear to the gendarmes – police sent from France to put down the general strike – that they are not welcome. - Photo: LKP
This Guadeloupean at the Gosier barricade makes it clear to the gendarmes – police sent from France to put down the general strike – that they are not welcome. - Photo: LKP
In neighboring Martinique, workers have joined their counterparts in Guadeloupe in a general strike that began on Feb. 5. As on Guadeloupe, their central demand is the same monthly raise.

On Feb. 14, a mass demonstration in the capital of Martinique demanded greater economic and political power for the African majority. The French elite, who are the descendants of the former plantation owners in Martinique, still control the economic institutions that make up the basis of the domestic and foreign trade.

The “Bekes,” who only comprise 1 percent of the population, which is officially stated at 401,000, still control the economy as a whole. An Associated Press article on Feb. 16 points out, “Many working class families are struggling to make ends meet amid a global economic crisis, exposing racial tensions 160 years after slavery ended in Martinique.”

In addition, the article notes, “Police say the protests remain peaceful, and 130 riot police arrived from France this week to keep order.”

This nonetheless goes on to emphasize that the situation has not become seriously violent, “But racial sentiments were inflamed after a one-hour documentary, ‘The last owners of Martinique,’ was shown on TV last week. The program focused on how the white minority group has dominated the economy.”

An Associated Press article published on Feb. 10 highlights the mass demonstrations and work stoppages that have been taking place in Martinique. “University students and artisans in the French Caribbean island of Martinique are protesting the high cost of living,” the AP article reports.

“All major commercial centers, gas stations and businesses remained closed on Tuesday (Feb. 10) as the protest entered its sixth day. Government officials have met with protesters, who demand a 30 percent overall reduction in prices. Union leaders have said they would agree to a 10 percent reduction among some products. No agreement has been reached.

“Police have said that 11,000 protesters crowded the streets of Martinique’s capital. Union leaders say it was more than double that number.”

In Guadeloupe, since Jan. 20, 47 trade unions, associations and political parties have refused to work and attend schools. A demonstration of 25,000 people was held on Jan. 24.

Some of the 146 demands put forward by the LKP include the reduction of fuel prices by 50 percent, the lowering of prices for transport services and water, an immediate freeze on rents, more job security for temporary employees, greater educational opportunities for youth and an end to racism in employment practices.

Guadeloupe has been a French colony since 1812. Although the island was ostensibly integrated into the French state after World War II in 1946, the country has remained in poverty.

Unemployment stands officially at 23 percent and the price of necessities are between 30 and 60 percent higher than what prevails in France. A report issued on Feb. 16 by the European statistics agency, Eurostats, documents that the French Overseas territories had some of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union.

In this regard, “The Indian Ocean island of Reunion topped the list, with 25.2 percent, followed by Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana, all in the Caribbean region.

“The two Spanish enclaves in Morocco – Ceuta and Melilla – came next, with rates of 20.3 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively,” the BBC reported on Feb. 16.

Guadeloupe is a recognized region of France and is controlled by the local council, dominated by the French Socialist Party (PS). Even though the PS is in opposition to the Conservative government of Sarkozy, no real solidarity efforts have been forthcoming for the workers in Guadeloupe.

Cynthia McKinney, MXGM express solidarity

In the United States, former congresswoman from Georgia and Green Party candidate for president in 2008, Cynthia McKinney, issued a statement of support to the workers in Guadeloupe on Feb. 7.

McKinney said in part: “I call on the authorities in Guadeloupe and in France to heed the workers’ and people’s just demands – and I urge the authorities to refrain from using any form of intimidation, pressure or repression against this powerful movement.”

The former congresswoman pointed out: “The eyes of the world are focused on Guadeloupe. Israel has shown the world that the massive use of force does not ensure victory. Indeed, it is counter-productive.”

McKinney also states: “Any use of force by the authorities against people exercising their rights is not acceptable. It is not by repression and the deployment of police and shock troops that a solution will be found.”

The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) also issued a statement on Feb. 13 in solidarity with the people of Guadeloupe and warned the French government to refrain from inflicting human rights violations on the workers engaging in economic and political struggles.

‘Any use of force by the authorities against people exercising their rights is not acceptable. It is not by repression and the deployment of police and shock troops that a solution will be found.’ – Cynthia McKinney

The statement reads: “The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) denounces in the strongest terms the threatening posture of the French government to the peoples of Guadaloupe and Martinique. We will not sit idly by and let the French government continue to treat our brothers and sisters as colonial subjects, or worse.”

The organization declares, “We stand in full support of the just demands of the people’s movements of Guadaloupe and Martinique for economic, social and cultural rights, human dignity and self-determination.

“MXGM serves notice to the French government that the resolution to the crisis in Guadaloupe and Martinique can only be addressed through diplomatic means in full accord with international law.”

The need for international solidarity

Although the one day strike by French workers on Jan. 29 received some press coverage in the United States, the events in Guadeloupe and Martinique have gone largely unnoticed by the corporate-controlled media. Both of these actions represent the workers’ response to the burgeoning economic crisis engendered by capitalist overproduction.

With unemployment at 23 percent and world economies in a tailspin, the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique are showing the world how to get their demands heard. Women and men are risking their lives to demand justice. - Photo: LKP
With unemployment at 23 percent and world economies in a tailspin, the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique are showing the world how to get their demands heard. Women and men are risking their lives to demand justice. - Photo: LKP
In specific reference to Guadeloupe and Martinique, both of these territories are still subjected to colonial rule and its concomitant exploitation of labor as well as institutional racism. The peoples of Guadeloupe and Martinique have an inherent right to self-determination and national independence.

Despite the disadvantaged conditions that the masses in Guadeloupe are struggling against, they are pointing the way for the coming struggles of working class people throughout the capitalist world. The building of a united front, the coming together of trade unions and peoples’ organizations is key in any process aimed at fighting against the current crisis in world capitalism.

How you can help

The International Liaison Committee of Workers & Peoples (ILC) urges all supporters of democratic rights to send protest statements to the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., to demand that the demands of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique be met. Tell them:

“We call on you and on the French government to 1) withdraw all special riot police and troops sent to Guadeloupe, 2) put a halt to any and all forms of repression against the striking population, 3) return to the negotiating table with the LKP Strike Collective and 4) heed their legitimate demands, beginning with an immediate 200 Euro increase in the minimum wage.

Call (202) 944-6000, fax (202) 944-6072 or email info@ambafrance-us.org. Please send a copy of your statement to ugtg@wanadoo.fr and ilcinfo@earthlink.net.

Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. Azikiwe has been following the current situation in Guadeloupe and Martinique over the last several weeks. Bay View staff contributed to this story.

3 thoughts on “French colonies in the Caribbean demand decent pay, end to racism

  1. Helen Hintjens

    For two decades I worked on the demands of Guadeloupeans and Martinicans for equality with their fellow French citizens of the mainland. It was in Guadeloupe that the revolution first burst out in these islands, with early revolts for freedom from slavery, before any revolutionary from the mainland had set foot there. Slavery was never restored, unlike in Martinique, where the damage had been done to the people’s minds. Guadeloupeans make me proud to be a human and have worked on the island’s recent political history. Riot police in Guadeloupe = how does their behaviour compare with riot police in Paris (centre) and Paris (banlieux).

    Reply
  2. Sergio

    Guadeloupe is not a french colonie…but a department…
    No slave and master now…we are living in a free country : FRANCE.
    I am a metis and I dont understand hate .
    Domota is racist and hate white people.

    Reply
  3. Heather

    Such a nice article it was which any information on the trade union movement in Guadeloupe are heavily censored by powerful interests that come into panic when unions become a political force in the masses of workers and peasants. In which worker and the farmer with high levels of awareness is a danger to the elites who accumulate wealth at the expense of the sweat of others. Thanks for posting this article.

    Reply

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