Sunday, February 15, 2009

Trouble in French "Paradise"

The French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe have been gripped by protests and strikes for more than 3 weeks now, and there is fear of contagion to Reunion. The local economy which is very dependent on tourism has come to a halt.

In case you’re not familiar with those islands, they are all French overseas departments and have the same political status as metropolitan departments and are integral parts of France, and the European Union.

The protests started because of the problems of living costs :

Prices of many staple items are much higher in the islands than in mainland France due to the cost of imports, while the average salaries are lower and unemployment is higher.

But there is a lot more to it - including racial and class tensions. Personally, I have never been to the French Caribbean, and I must admit I don’t know much about it and can hardly find anything worth adding to what you can read in the news.

I can just make a few observations about how I see it from Metropole (i.e. mainland France).

  • I must that even though I grew up in France I never learned much about the French overseas departments and territories (also called DOM-TOM, an acronym used for départements d'outre-mer and territoires d'outre-mer ) in school, other than their legal existence and I suspect this is the case of pretty much all French citizens in Metropole.
  • Then, there is never much about DOM-TOM in the French media anyway, other than a few reports on the touristic opportunities they may represent. Initially, the protests and strikes just made 30 second newsflashes (and usually only from the perspective of French tourists stranded there). Only when the government sent its minister for overseas territories, Yves Jégo, to the islands, did the news make the headlines – some 2 weeks later. Since then, there have been many reports and documentaries on Martinique and Guadeloupe.
  • French president Sarkozy made his first public comments on the movement last Friday, 20 days after the strike and protest began and the topic was not even mentioned in his interview on Feb 6. Thisreflects the disconnection between the Metropole and its islands.
  • From what we can see and hear, all the protesters are black and (almost) the owners are white in Martinique. The (almost exclusively white) elite group is mostly Béké (the descendants of colonists and slave holders) and makes up an estimated 1 percent of the population in Martinique, and owns the majority of industries while the (mostly) black workers are descended from African slaves brought to work on its colonial-era sugar plantations.
As reported by the International Herald Tribune:

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.

One white business owner was quoted as saying historians should look at "the positive aspects of slavery" and that a mixed-race family lacks "harmony." Officials in France have opened an investigation against the businessman, Alain Huygues-Despointes.

Martinique's prefect, or political leader, Ange Mancini, had been renting from Huygues-Despointes but announced he has terminated his lease and found somewhere else to live. Mancini is white.

Of course, I am always wary of too simplistic a view. I have also read a few reports on unions forcing people to close their shops for instance or intimidating those who want to work, or making street blockades. There is fear the situation could escalate:

French riot police landed in the Caribbean territory of Martinique on Thursday to keep the peace.
Martinique's police chief, Col. Francois-Xavier Bourges, said 10 people have been detained for looting and stealing gasoline. Garbage piled up in the streets, and supermarkets were closed for the eighth straight day.

The Metropole is now paying attention and some say there is a risk of contagion to France. According to a recent poll, 63% of the French believe a similar movement might develop in France out of which 25% think it will and 38% think it is likely while only 38% do not.

Personally, I am skeptical that the movement will spread. Polls don’t mean much and people tend to be a bit dramatic about it, but of course, in this day and age, any prediction is hard.


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