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Upping the ante

‘Let’s stand up and fight, against all kinds of abuses!’ This is the rallying cry of the 47 unions and community organizations that form Guadeloupe’s Committee against Extreme Exploitation. In one of the first broad-based revolts against the effects of the global financial meltdown, a wave of strikes essentially shut down the French Caribbean in January and February.

As the implications for ordinary people of advancing economic distress hits public consciousness in different parts of the world – from rural China to urban Greece – people are starting to react. In the French Caribbean, as elsewhere, this popular contagion has attached itself to local conditions and grievances.

Guadeloupe and its southern neighbour Martinique are theoretically part of France but face a price/wage squeeze, with prices much higher and wages much lower than in Paris or Lyon. In addition, the two islands are dominated by the bekes, creole slang for a wealthy group of white landowners, whose economic fortunes date back to the days of slavery. While the cost of living in Guadeloupe is as much as four times greater than in metropolitan France, incomes are less than half and unemployment is 22 per cent (in France it is just over 7 per cent).

The first indications of trouble in the region occurred in late 2008 with a series of protest roadblocks over neglect and high food prices in French Guyana on the north coast of Latin America. By early January the protests had spread north, with tens of thousands of workers virtually shutting down the economies of Guadeloupe and Martinique. In Guadeloupe’s capital, Pointe-à-Pitre, an angry demonstration drew over 25,000 people out of a population of just 400,000. The strikers’ 146 demands included a 200 euro ($250) increase in the minimum wage, rights for temporary workers, a rent freeze and a rollback of food and fuel prices.

At first the Sarkozy regime in Paris paid little attention, hoping the strikes would just run out of steam. Then they sent in hundreds of police. In mid-February strike activist Jacques Bino was shot and killed at a Pointe-à-Pitre roadblock. As solidarity demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere picked up momentum, the Government was forced to get serious. It finally conceded the 200 euro increase demand and committed to regulating prices on such things as bread and airfares and to the hiring of more teachers for a struggling school system. Negotiations in Martinique have also borne results, but the strikers are holding out for more extensive gains.

The reverberations of the mass strikes in the French Caribbean quickly spread beyond the region. On the more heavily-populated French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, protests and strikes have taken hold. But it is blowback to the French mainland that Conservatives fear most. Protesters from the troubled banlieues (low-income suburbs) of Paris and other French cities have been front and centre in the solidarity demonstrations with the Caribbean. A communiqué from the bleak high-rises draws the link: ‘Because we are Black, Arab or Muslim, our rights are ridiculed, our dignity is crushed, our cultures are scorned. In France, as in the overseas territories, we all carry on the struggle against colonialism.’ The strikers have shown that for economic aid to go beyond banks and car companies, they need to make a noise: ‘Only the squeaking wheel gets the grease.’

Richard Swift

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