Saturday, February 21, 2009

Gaudeloupe: the wraith and wrath of France's past

When Barack Obama was elected American president over a month ago, the French satirical journal ‘Le Canard enchaîné ’ published a picture of the new president with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy. The famous slogan of the latter ‘ yes we can’ was mordantly juxtaposed with Sarkozy’s rhyming imitation, “Yes je crâne ! ”-yes I boast! The accession of the first black president in US history sparked off a series of lively debates in the French media on the question of racial and cultural diversity. Could France follow the American example and elect a black president? What measures are needed to address the question of race and socio-economic equality? France’s historical cubard contains many restless squelletons most notably the legacy of its African and Oceanic colonies. Serious discussion of French atrocities in the Algerian war of independence remains, according to many polemicists, quite mute. However, just as this debate was taking place in the cosmopolitan salons of Paris, workers in the French Carribean island of Gaudeloupe were taking to the streets en masse. In spite of the fact that the general strike has paralysed the French island for over a month, reporting on the Gaudeloupean crisis has been surprisingly scanty until now. Yet the signals were given to Elysée Palace as early as December 8th 2008 that workers had had enough of exorbitant prices and meagre wages. Paris ignored the warnings. On the 20th of January the Committee against extreme exploitation (LPK) launched a general strike crippling the island’s economy. Yet, it took the French government 10 days before asking the Secretary of State for overseas territories Yves Jégo to visit the island in an effort to resolve the crisis. Since then, the situation on the island has intensified with riots and larceny on the increase. On February 18th a syndicalist was shot dead after leaving a meeting. According to reports, a gang of youths mistook him for a police officer. The procrastination of the French government coupled with the incendiary comment by the president that the behaviour of the rioters, whom he described as hooligans and delinquents, proves that the conflict can no longer be considered social, have radicalised the animosity of many Gaudeloupeans. The protesters are demanding a significant increase in their salaries. The French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has proposed an increase of 200 euro per month. It remains to be seen whether this measure will suffice to quell the flames of discontent that have gripped the island in the past few months.
The Guadeloupean crisis raises serious problems for France and indeed Europe. As a department of France, it is also part of the European Union. However, along with its neighbouring island of Martinique and the South American country of French Guyana, it forms part of the only EU region inextricably linked to the history of slavery. Conquered by France in 1635, it has remained in French possession ever since. To finance their sugar and cane industries, the French imported slaves from Africa to work in the new colony. Slavery was temporarily abolished in 1794, only to be re-introduced under the dictatorship of Napoléon in 1802. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848. However, after the abolition the French government continued to maintain the sugar and cane industries, the only difference for the slaves being that they were now free to earn a meagre wage with which to buy their own food at high prices. In 1971 the Martinique poet and French deputy declared that the new capitalist system was even more colonial than the old. Much of the old slave businesses stayed in the possession of white colonial families whose descendants still have a monopoly on the island’s industries today. In spite of their traumatic past, Gaudeloupeans are proud of their French identity. Unlike their neighbours in Haiti who secured independence in 1804, Gaudeloupe sought equality at the heart of the French Republic, creating a concept of identity which transcended geographical and racial boundaries. They represent in this sense the essence of French republicanism, yet the historical wounds of institutionalised racism have been re-opened by what many perceive as the blind indifference of the French government to France’s most impoverished region.

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