We have not seen this for a very long time: 60,000 protesters on the streets at the time of the Déboulé (traditional carnival parade) on 30 January. At least as many again on 14 February at Le Moule in commemoration of the massacre of the general strike of 1952, drowned in blood by the French state. Reports say over one quarter of the population are involved in the general strike.
It is a real social and political cyclone that has been sweeping Guadeloupe for a month and which is now reaching Martinique and also Guyana and la Réunion. (A call for a general strike on 5 March has gone out. This is far from the post card images of palm trees, paradise-like beaches and Ti’punch (local rum drink) conjured up here in Metropolitan France when the Overseas Departments are mentioned. But actually, looking more closely, the social explosion that these islands are experiencing should come as no surprise.
With high unemployment and staggering poverty and with costs of living between 20 and 50% higher than metropolitan France, these are the country’s poorest departments.
As Jean Claude Tormin, a Guadeloupe trade unionist explains, it is not just a social crisis and as with all general strikes it has great political significance. The government’s response in sending in the mobile police and rounding up 50 of the organisers on Monday 16 February shows also the fear of the elite that the conflict will become more political and extend beyond the ocean to here in France.
It has been a month since a general strike developed in Guadeloupe (and now also in Martinique, for the last two weeks. What are the reasons for this movement and how was it prepared for?
The strike has become more radical, not weaker, on its 25th day. This movement is the result of neo-colonial exploitation, which has provoked a determined, united response from the labouring masses
The strength of the strike seems also to be due to the ‘Lyanaj Kont Pwofitasyon’ (LKP) organisation. How was it formed?
‘Liyanaj Kont Pwofitasion’ (LKP) was formed on the initiative of the main trade union organisations - the UGTG, CGTG, CTU, SPEG and FSU - to unite the struggles against the social, cultural and economic grievances felt in the country over the years. Its first protest took place on the 16 December 2008 and saw 10,000 people take to the streets of Point a Pitre for better living conditions, against unemployment (at 27%) and discrimination in employment. Following this demonstration, the collective was joined by other professional, social and cultural organisations, as well as anti-colonial political groups. They then launched a call for an indefinite general strike based on a platform of 152 demands.
What action was undertaken?
The general strike has been transformed into an immense popular movement of protest and has highlighted the suffering of the Antilles region. All layers of society have been mobilised and are taking their own spontaneous initiatives.
- Marches and meetings take place every day on the streets of the big towns (Pointe à Pitre and Basse-Terre).
- In the JARRY (import-export) zone, the striking workers went from business to business, explaining the issues to non-strikers and convincing them to join the movement.
- Agricultural workers began direct sales of fruit and vegetables in the fields, at ‘LKP prices’.
- Small businesses did likewise. A resistance economy is in being established.
- Support concerts are also being organised.
Two weeks ago the collective called for a meeting with the youth. Has there been active involvement of young people in the strike?
Young people participate fully in the movement and meetings between the LKP and the student and school student organisations, as well as unemployed or unorganised youth have allowed for fruitful discussion and debate. The majority of young Guadeloupeans with degrees are affected by unemployment and anxious about their future and are reaffirming their right to live and work in the country. There are many accounts of discrimination in employment. Workers in the private sector are often employed by metropolitan bosses, or such impossible criteria for recruitment are set that few young workers can qualify. (A big Norwegian hotel group was looking for bilingual gardeners and housekeepers!!!)
One gets the impression that Guadaloupeans feel abandoned, and like colonised people. How can you explain these feelings? What is their material basis?
Guadoloupean people and now the people of Martinique do not feel abandoned. On the contrary, they want to determine their own destiny and strike a blow against the existence of colonialism in the region. It must be understood that the plantation economy of the last century has failed. The establishment of old colonies of the Americas in a French department has not changed the nature of the relations of exploitation. The territory’s monoculture exploitation of sugar cane and bananas for the benefit of an oligarchy of white Creoles has been transformed into a consumer society, run in the interests of the same oligarchy, who control almost all of the import-export industry and the big distribution firms - Carrefour, Cora etc.
Other things to add to the list: the provision of petrol is managed by Societe Antillaise de Raffiniere (SARA), in which the main share-holder is the company TOTAL, which also owns 70% of service stations. The roots of this revolt also lie in the price of petrol, which did not stop going up, despite the fact that TOTAL announced staggering profits. The price of banking services are on average 150% more than in France BNP - Societe Générale...The mass of people, who suffer the hard blows of the double burden of colonial and capitalist exploitation, decided they had had enough of being abandoned and pauperised.
How was this anger translated in political and trade union terms? Has there appeared a flood of new activists? Do the discussions between workers make a link with the crisis of capitalism? Is there a resurgence of pro-independence and/or anti-capitalist demands?
Rallies, marches and discussions between workers and other layers of society (youth, artists, small businessmen etc) are often transmitted directly in the local media.
The area branches of the collective are generally led by anti-colonial militants. It is clear that political debate underlies all the demands of the movement even if the demands put forward by the collective are about social order, the economy, the environment and self-determination. The actions of the masses are framed by the industrial and political activists.
The context of the economic crisis influences the debate and develops a consciousness of the need for a new society, which guarantees a division of wealth in favour of the poorest and that Guadeloupe has a part to play in the struggle against global capitalism. One could say that this struggle is a struggle for Guadeloupe’s workers to retake control over their own destiny.
The government has sent Yves Jégo and some “mediators” to negotiate. What are the proposals? How are they being greeted by the workers?
The collective made an overture, but it was rejected. Jego’s sudden change of heart was intended to create an illusion. Certainly a preliminary agreement was reached with him, namely:
- For a drop of 10% in the prices of 100 basic necessities.
- A net increase of €200 on salaries up to 1.6 times the minimum wage (SMIC), with a diminishing increase beyond that.
- A drop in petrol prices by 20 cents per litre.
The local councils decided to invest €50 million in the plan.
The local MEDEF (bosses’ confederation) have said that any increase in wages will be on condition of a lessening of the employers’ social contributions.
This preliminary agreement has not received the approval of the government and the local Medef has used it to backslide. The negotiations have been interrupted but the struggle continues with even more determination! This has been shown by the demonstration of 50,000 on 14 February – the one which went to Le Moule to commemorate the slaughter of sugar-cane workers that took place when they came out in 1952 for a wage increase of just 5 francs. This is a retying of the knot with the proud history of workers’ struggles.
Le Moule, 17February
To follow the movement day by day you can look at the following sites (in French) [http://www.caribcreole1.com/|site d’information caribéen] and [http://www.lkp-gwa.org/|site du LKP]