Paris: French President Nicolas Sarkozy had decided to personally take up the dossier of the troubled French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique where the situation, with a five-week-old general strike, is deteriorating fast.
Authorities in France are getting visibly jittery on the eve of talks between employers and unions scheduled for Wednesday in Paris and a nation-wide general strike, the second in three weeks, scheduled for February 19. There are growing fears in Paris that the social unrest will spread not just to other Caribbean islands but to mainland France itself.
Protests in Guadeloupe and Martinique against low salaries and the exceptionally high cost of living turned violent overnight with protesters burning shops and businesses and erecting roadblocks with chopped down coconut trees. Paris has sent in several units of specially trained anti-riot police and several arrests have been reported. Over a quarter of Guadeloupe’s population of half a million inhabitants has been out in the streets and shops, cafes, banks, schools and government offices remain shut. At the height of the tourist season, two thirds of the 15,000 hotel beds in Guadeloupe are empty.
Despite emissaries sent from Paris, the strike has continued with shops out of stocks and petrol pumps running dry. The leader of the strike in Guadeloupe, Elie Domota, has accused France of preparing to kill protesters to bring an end to the stoppage on the French Caribbean island.
“Today, given the number of gendarmes who have arrived in Guadeloupe armed to the teeth, the French state has chosen its natural path: to kill Gaudeloupeans as usual,” Elie Domota told reporters on Saturday. His accusation came as some supermarkets and petrol stations, which have been shut for more than three weeks, reopened under police protection.
The strike is also being played out in the backdrop of tensions between the original inhabitants of the islands and the “Bekes”, white colonisers who used slave labour to cultivate huge plantations until slavery was abolished in 1848. Former slave owners and a small white minority have kept a tight grip on the islands’ economy ever since. “The situation in Guadeloupe is not far from social apartheid,” warned Christiane Taubura, an MP from French Guyana. “The leaders of the strikers are not anti-white racists. They are exposing a reality...a caste holds economic power and abuses it,” she told Le Journal du Dimanche.
The islands rely almost exclusively on imports sold in French-owned supermarkets at significantly higher prices than in France. A packet of rice or pasta, for instance, costs 90 per cent higher than in the “metropole”. Petrol too is far more expensive.