Guadeloupe: negotiations break off, general strike continues

On Feb. 12 the Collective Against Extreme Exploitation (LKP) abruptly broke off negotiations aimed at ending a general strike that has paralyzed the French overseas department of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean since Jan. 20. The LKP, a coalition including political parties, grassroots organizations and 47 unions, insisted that the French government should sign on to a preliminary accord the strikers worked out with management on Feb. 8 giving the poorest workers a raise of 200 euros (about $259) a month. The government refused. “The state has done all it should,” Raymond Soubie, an aide to French president Nicholas Sarkozy, told the media. “The rest, negotiations on wages, is a matter between management and the unions.”

The stalled negotiations raised fears of a violent confrontation. On Feb. 11 unnamed sources in the French Interior and Overseas ministries said the government had four squadrons of mobile police on Guadeloupe and no plans to send more, although two squadrons were being sent to the nearby French department of Martinique, also experiencing a general strike; there are 65 agents in a squadron. Elie Domota—who heads the General Union of Guadeloupe Workers (UGTG), the leading force in the LKP—told the AFP wire service on Feb. 14 that “given the number of police who have arrived in Guadeloupe armed to the teeth, the French state has chosen its natural path: killing the Guadeloupeans, as usual.” He was leading thousands of people in a peaceful protest at the little town of Moule to mark the 57th anniversary of the killing of four sugar cane workers there by French security forces. (Caribbean Net News, Feb. 13 from AFP; Le Monde, France, Feb. 15, some from AFP; Le Figaro, France, Feb. 15 from AFP; L’Express, France, Feb. 14)

The immediate issues are low wages and the high cost of living, but the mostly African-descended population of 450,000 also resents the control over the economy by less than a dozen “beke” families—the descendants of French slave-owners. Another is discontent with the local authorities, many of them from the French opposition Socialist Party (PS). The UGTG is openly in favor of independence from France, but it has been careful to avoid this issue, which is
considered divisive.

Support for the strike remains broad, and French journalists report a festive atmosphere—”a joyful, peaceful revolution, for now,” according to the left-leaning LibĂ©ration. “Guadeloupe is ours,
Guadeloupe isn’t theirs,” crowds chant at the massive demonstrations. “There’s been an earthquake in people’s consciousness,” teacher Gladys Democrite told French overseas official Yves Jego during a round-table discussion. A union leader, Rozan Mounien, called the strike “the second abolition of slavery.” (L’Express, Feb. 14; LibĂ©ration, Feb. 14)

The strike movement spread to Martinique on Feb. 5, when unions held what was to be a one-day general strike. But the strike continued, and on Feb. 14 the “Feb. 5 Collective,” the coalition leading the strike, broke off negotiations, calling for a huge demonstration on Feb. 16. (AFP, Feb. 15) Agitation has also spread to other overseas departments, including French Guyana in South America. An alliance of unions is calling for a general strike on March 5 in La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. (Le Monde, Feb. 15, some from AFP; Reuters, Feb. 13)

“I am fearful that the feeling of exasperation of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique could spread here too,” PS national first secretary Martine Aubry told the French daily Le Parisien. “Everything must be done to avoid that.” An opinion poll that the Ifop (Institut Francais d’Opinion Publique) company took by telephone in France on Feb. 12-13 found that 63% of the 800 people questioned felt a similar movement could “develop in the mother country”—”certainly,” according to 25%; “probably,” according to 38%. (Reuters, Feb. 13; AFP, Feb. 14)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 15

See our last post on the struggle in Guadeloupe and Martinique.