Guadeloupe: talks resume after strike violence

On the evening of Feb. 19 French president Nicholas Sarkozy met in Paris with elected officials from the French overseas department of Guadeloupe and promised to work to restore calm to the Caribbean island, which has been paralyzed by a general strike since Jan. 20. He also announced 580 million euros ($737 million) in aid for France’s overseas departments, with emphasis on the Active Solidarity Revenue (RSA), a social welfare program.

Hours later the Collective Against Extreme Exploitation (LKP), the coalition leading the strike, agreed to restart negotiations that the strikers had broken off on Feb. 12. The new talks began on Feb. 20 but quickly adjourned for the weekend; they were to resume on Feb. 23. The General Union of Guadeloupe Workers (UGTG), the leading force in the LKP, said its negotiators remained “extremely prudent and circumspect” about the government’s offers. The strikers are demanding a wage increase of 200 euros ($259) a month. (LibĂ©ration, France, Feb. 20; UGTG press release, Feb. 20)

The new talks followed an escalation of the strike and several outbreaks of violence. On Feb. 16 strikers began blocking roads with dozens of barricades. Shooting began the night of Feb. 17, and a union leader, Jacques Bino, was shot dead. The government blamed “delinquents”; UGTG secretary general Elie Domota has called for an independent investigation. There was more shooting the night of Feb. 18; stores were looted, some dozen fires were set, the Sainte-Rose town hall was sacked, and about 40 people were arrested. The French government announced it was sending four squadrons of mobile armed national police (about 280 agents), in addition to the 1,000 armed national police and 993 regular police already on the island. (There are also 850 armed national police and 1,000 regular police in the nearby overseas department of Martinique, which has been on strike since Feb. 5.)

The situation grew less tense on Feb. 19 as strike leaders for the first time issued explicit appeals for calm to the island’s youths. (LibĂ©ration, Feb. 20; AFP, Feb. 21; La Jornada, Mexico, Feb. 19)

Sarkozy has had trouble responding to the situation because “he’s afraid the dispute may overtake France,” Elie Domota told reporters on Feb. 21, alluding to the effects of global recession on Europe. Left-of-center French activists and politicians have started visiting Guadeloupe. SĂ©golène Royal, the Socialist Party (PS) candidate against Sarkozy in 2007, arrived on Feb. 21 to attend Jacques Bino’s funeral, scheduled for Feb. 22. French peasant leader JosĂ© BovĂ© arrived on Feb. 19, as did Olivier Besancenot, spokesperson for the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). Cheers greeted BovĂ© as he stood in front of the LKP’s headquarters at the Palais de la MutualitĂ© to denounce the “neocolonial order that reigns in Guadeloupe” and to call for “food sovereignty.” (L’Express, France) 2/22/09; LibĂ©ration 2/20/09)

Thousands of people marched in France on Feb. 21 to support the Guadeloupean strikers. The largest demonstration, in Paris, drew 10,000 people, according to the police; organizers put the number at 30,000. There were smaller demonstrations in Nantes (700 people), Marseilles, Toulouse (500-600 people), Lyons, Lille, Rennes, Limoges and Strasbourg. Most demonstrators were from the Caribbean, but many national unions and parties supported the marches, including the PS, the NPA, the Greens, Workers Struggle (LO), the French Communist Party (PCF) and the General Workers Confederation (CGT). Slogans included: “Life is expensive under the coconut trees,” “Liberty, equality, fraternity, for whom?” and “200 euros here too, yes we can”—with the last three words in English, an allusion to the 2008 campaign slogan of US president Barack Obama. (AFP, Feb. 21; Nouvel Observateur, France, Feb. 21)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 22

See our last post on the struggle in Guadeloupe.