Insurrection on French Caribbean Islands

February 18, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

French gendarme watches as barricades set up by activists of the Collective against Exploitation (LKP) are removed, on February 16, 2009 in Gosier, Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe.  (Julien Tack/AFP/Getty Images)
French gendarme watches as barricades set up by activists of the Collective against Exploitation (LKP) are removed, on February 16, 2009 in Gosier, Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe. (Julien Tack/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS—The French Caribbean Islands: an idealistic location, with the sea, the sun, and now, a massive strike … the two islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are now almost out of government control, after a month of sustained strikes, including ransacked shops, arson, roadblocks and more. Both islands have reached a standstill while local police spend the nights preventing mass looting by firing teargas shots.

The demonstrations, coordinated by the LKP (“Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon”, meaning “Stand Up Against Exploitation”) aim at obtaining higher wages for the two French departments. Nearly 25 percent of Guadeloupe inhabitants are jobless, and 12 percent live under the poverty line. LKP, an alliance of nearly 50 local trade unions and associations, has been unsuccessful in negotiating higher salary for low-income workers. The result was the massive strikes and unrest. Local companies refuse to increase salaries if taxes don’t drop, and that is something that French Prime Minister François Fillon is loath to do, given the enormous help already provided to the islands over the years.

In contrast to normal strikes, which tend to lose their strength over time, each day on the French islands sees stronger and stronger actions and mobilization. Tens of thousands of protesters were in the streets last weekend, for example: “We cannot bear being in a state of dependence. We cannot bear having our economy in this state. We do expect dignity,” Mrs Christiane Taubira, Member of the Parliament for the Guyane department, said to Le Monde newspaper.

According to Yves Jego, State Secretary to overseas territories, local companies are responsible: “It is now the time for employers to act, I hope they will draft a complete proposal very soon,” he said to Le Parisien. “It is not up to the government to decide the salaries, be it overseas or on the mainland.”

French military police arrested ten LKP militants who had threatened local job owners if they would not join the strike. Regular interventions are also made to remove roadblocks, extinguish fires, and prevent robberies.

Faced with a worsening situation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that he would personally meet members of parliament from Guadeloupe and Martinique on Thursday Feb. 19, in Paris.

Fear is growing that the riots could spread to other French territories, or to the mainland, where extreme-left parties have already called for a general strike “as a support to overseas comrades.” Revolutionary communist leader Olivier Besancenot has planned a trip to Guadeloupe on Feb. 20, a move which has already been criticized as likely to worsen the situation.

The strikes have also exacerbated tensions between island natives, the “creoles,” and rich colonial-period white families, the “beke,” who maintain economic power over the islands. This is despite the French government already having planned 16 billion euro in subsidies for overseas territories in 2009 alone.

It is not enough for some, however: “What does the Guadeloupean see after sixty years as a French department ?”, asked Patrick Karam, a politician, quoted in Le Monde. “Prices higher than the mainland, salaries far below the national average, young graduates kept jobless while mainland workers come and take managerial duties.”