A four week old general strike has escalated into riots on the French-controlled islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Today a union representative was shot dead as he drove up to a barricade in Guadeloupe's largest city Pointe-à-Pitre, though it is not known who shot him. The Caribbean island had been brought to a standstill for nearly a month by strikes and demonstrations over high prices for food and other necessities. Yesterday protesters ransacked shops and torched cars in several towns across the island. The violence has also spread to the nearby island of Martinique. France has deployed over one hundred riot police to both islands and last night police used tear gas to disperse protesters. The president of the local regional council admitted Guadeloupe was "on the verge of revolt."
That island's mostly peaceful demonstrations were coordinated by an alliance of about 50 unions and associations. The collective goes by the name of "Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon" (LKP) which is local dialect for "Stand Up Against Exploitation." The LKP demanded aid and pay rises for workers struggling to survive on an island with a high cost of living. On 30 January they organised a protest of 60,000 people in Pointe-à-Pitre, which represents 15 percent of the island’s total population. LKP have shut down petrol stations, ports, supermarkets, banks and government offices and the strike has caused power blackouts and food and water shortages. The island’s main airport was also closed down yesterday after many employees failed to turn up for work.
With Martinique also now joining the strike action and riots, France sent its minister for overseas territories to the region yesterday for a second round of emergency talks. Yves Jégo left the Caribbean last week after promising €180m in aid to the poor. But France steadfastly refuses to meet the main demand for a monthly €200 increase in base salaries. Patrick Lozès, the head of France's umbrella group of black associations Cran, blamed racial discrimination for the government’s refusal to accede to Guadeloupe’s demands. "Is it normal,” he asked, “that, 160 years after the abolition of slavery, the descendants of colonists possess 90 per cent of Guadeloupe's riches, but represent only 1 per cent of the population?”
The racial theme is also important in Martinique where the mainly black demonstrators chanted "Martinique is ours, not theirs!" Whites dominate the economy of both islands despite representing only around one percent of the population. Both Guadeloupe and Martinique are French overseas regions in the euro zone. France acquired Guadeloupe in the 1630s and was developed for sugar plantations worked by African slaves who still form the vast majority of the population. The islands were disputed by Britain but awarded to France in petty recompense for the loss of Canada in 1763. Today Guadeloupe still depends on sugar and rum production as well as tourism. But both islands’ economy is topped up with support from France. Both Guadeloupe and Martinique were formally assimilated into the metropole in 1946 when they became two of the four departments d’outre mer (along with Guyane and Reunion) with elected departmental and regional councils as well as representation in the French parliament.
While none of the departments d’outre mer have their own currency, postage stamps or official flags, they are still considered second class French citizens in many respects. Unemployment is double that of the mainland and Guadeloupe is considered one of the poorest areas of the EU. France outlawed one major pro-independence group in Guadeloupe in the 1980s. But despite the implied racism of the colonial system, there is no great nationalistic passion in either island. Only a tiny percentage of people in either Guadeloupe or Martinique have ever voted for independence movements. No party in either department has been able to articulate how it would manage economic and social development without French assistance. Even today, the demonstrators on the islands want Paris to do more, not less.