Race, class fuel social conflict in French Caribbean

17th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

As strikes on the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique drag on, protesters are holding the white minority elite responsible for their economic woes.

POINTE-A-PITRE – A general strike crippling Guadeloupe and Martinique has exposed racial and class divides on the French Caribbean islands where a white elite wields power over a majority descended from African slaves.

Protesters on Monday stepped up their nearly month-long strike action in Guadeloupe by setting up roadblocks across the island. Police moved in to dismantle them and detained dozens of protesters.

The Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), a coalition of unions and leftist groups who launched the strike in January, is demanding that the state and employers to do far more to help islanders cope with the high cost of living.

A similar strike, with similar demands, started more than a week ago on the the neighbouring French island of Martinique, which like Guadeloupe is hugely popular with mainland French tourists seeking tropical winter sun.

But the strikes on both islands, which between them have about 850,000 residents, have also taken on a racial element.

On both islands the economy is largely in the hands of the "Bekes," the local name for a tiny white minority who are mostly the descendants of colonial landlords and sugar plantation slave owners of the 17th and 18th centuries.

"A caste holds economic power and abuses it," said Christiane Taubira, a French member of parliament for the overseas department of French Guiana on the south American continent.

She warned Sunday that the situation in Guadeloupe was "not far from social apartheid" but added that "the leaders of the LKP are not anti-white racists”.

"They are exposing a reality," she told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

Rama Yade, the only black minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government, said that over and above the problem of the cost of living, there is "a problem with the distribution of wealth" on the islands.

The social discord is "exacerbating" racial tensions, she said.

"Guadeloupe, it's ours, Guadeloupe, it doesn't belong to them," is the chant heard at recent protests on the island, with a similar refrain heard on Martinique, both referring to the Bekes.

He wanted to 'preserve his race'
Many people on the islands, which lie about 7,000 kilometres from the French mainland, are resentful of the rich minority who over the centuries have mostly married only other whites.

That antipathy was heightened by recent remarks by one of Martinique's richest men, Alain Huygues-Despointes, which scandalised many here.

Huygues-Despointes, a white, said in a documentary screened on French television in January that one reason for avoiding inter-racial marriage was that he wanted to "preserve his race".

The rich white families largely control imports to the islands, where nearly all manufactured goods come from abroad, and they own most of the supermarkets, which islanders say are charging inflated prices for basic goods.

The islands, which get massive subsidies from the French state, suffer from far higher unemployment than on the mainland.

Here it stands at 22 percent, against around eight percent on mainland France, while gross domestic product per person here is just 60 percent of the French average.

Yet the French West Indies are much richer than their neighbours in the Caribbean, with which they have few economic, political or cultural links.

France subsidises flights to its departments in the Caribbean in the interests of national cohesion, and provides the same public services to residents there.

The islands have the same supermarket chains that are found on mainland France, but they charge higher prices for the same goods.

"There is a monopoly problem, that of an insular economy which is the heir to colonial trading posts," said the French minister of overseas affairs, Yves Jego.

Jego said he had asked France's Competition Authority to draw up a report by mid-year on fuel and consumer product distribution in the country's overseas departments and territories.

France has four overseas departments, which are integral parts of France, and the European Union.

Aside from Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, it has French Guiana in South America and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

[AFP / Expatica]

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