Thursday, February 26, 2009

General strike shakes France’s Caribbean colonies


The general strike in two French colonies in the Caribbean is firm, with no end in sight. It began in Guadeloupe on January 20 and spread to neighbouring Martinique on February 5 as a protest against the high cost of living and, more generally, the gross inequality between the conditions of the black population and a tiny white elite, descendants of slaveholders, that controls most industry and agriculture. The two islands, each with a population of about 400,000, are officially designated overseas departments of France, and the repression of the strikers by the French government, which has flown in more than a thousand gendarmes from the metropolis, has underscored their colonial oppression.

The islands, along with two other French colonies — French Guiana in South America and La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, both of which are experiencing mounting unrest — have the highest unemployment rates in the European Union, double those of metropolitan France. Also, prices of basic commodities and food staples, most of them imported, are much higher.

Basse-Terre demo

Demonstration in Basse-Terre, January 31

The strike in Guadeloupe is led by a coalition of about fifty organizations under the aegis of the General Union of the Workers of Guadeloupe (UGTG): Lihannaj Kont Pwofitasyon in the local creole, or the Collective against super-exploitation. It has issued a platform of almost 150 demands for higher wages and improved social benefits, lower taxes and prices on necessities and transportation, construction of social housing, environmental decontamination, job training and priority hiring for Guadeloupians, no more layoffs, worker participation in management, trade-union rights including collective agreements and occupational health and safety protection, creation of public services in strategic sectors, land reform and agricultural development, development of media and other facilities in the local language and culture, and investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the massacre of striking construction workers in May 1967, etc. Similar demands have been raised by the strikers in Martinique.

In response to the strike, the French government sent a junior minister, Yves Jégo, to Guadeloupe. He proposed a deal to increase the salaries of 45,000 workers but was suddenly recalled by Paris. He returned a few days later after massive protest demonstrations across the island, but continued government resistance to its demands has forced the LKP to suspend negotiations.

The strike has closed the airport, gas stations, schools, banks, government offices and the tourist industry. It has so far claimed one victim: Jacques Bino, a tax agent and union member who was shot, apparently by provocateurs. Dozens of demonstrators have been arrested, including leaders of the LKP, although most have since been released.

Jacques Bino funeral

Funeral of murdered striker Jacques Bino

On February 16, the LKP issued a call to the international workers and democratic movement for solidarity with the strike. But the strike has received little attention in the international media, especially outside France. A notable, albeit modest exception in Canada is the publication of a number of articles on the strike in the current issue of the on-line Quebec publication Presse-toi-à-gauche. I have translated the introductory article, by Dimitris Fasfalis, below.

The mass trade union movement in France has given only lukewarm support to the strikers in the country’s Caribbean colonies. An initial demonstration of support in Paris was held February 16, at the initiative of some left-wing organizations including the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA), a broadly based new party to the left of the Socialists and Communists. It attracted many young protesters from the immigrant communities, many chanting in the Creole language. A second solidarity action has been called for February 28 by Caribbean associations in France, with the support of some union and political organizations. The NPA has sent its leading spokesperson, Olivier Besancenot, to the Caribbean colonies to report firsthand on the mobilizations.

One of the organizations in France expressing the strongest support for the Caribbean strikers is the Sans Papiers, an organization of immigrants who lack the documentation to become full French citizens. I have translated its message of solidarity, below. It draws special attention to the anti-imperialist, anticolonial implications of the strike movement, as does the PTàG article by Fasfalis.

For further information on this inspiring strike movement — one of the first such mass actions in response to the developing global economic and social crisis — readers may wish to consult some of these links:

Official web site of the General Union of the Workers of Guadeloupe (mainly in Creole and French):

2009 French Caribbean general strikes (wikipedia, updated daily):

Carib Creole One news:

Photos of the mass protests and other activities:

Guadeloupe: A people arise

By Dimitris Fasfalis

February 24, 2009

For more than a month now, Guadeloupe has been providing a tremendous lesson in social resistance to the local bosses and the French government. Its people have responded to the growing insecurity with an historically unprecedented general strike. What is behind this mobilization? The answer would seem to lie in the capacity of the social movement to embody the peoples’ aspirations for emancipation.

The aspiration for human dignity

The scope of this revolt, in the first place, refutes those who would dismiss it as the action of a few agitators seeking notoriety. The call for the general strike, issued last January 20, has been met by a massive mobilization of the population in the streets. On February 18 alone, between 60 and 80 thousand demonstrated in Le Moule, a town in the east of the island, to commemorate the assassination of five sugar cane workers by the repressive forces in 1957. That’s a demonstration of 13 to 17 percent of the island’s total population of 460,000. Imagine what it would mean if five million demonstrators gathered day after day in Ottawa to demand higher wages.

Le Moule demo

Demonstration in Le Moule, February 14

Initially a challenge to the price of gasoline, the social movement is demanding measures to fight the high cost of living and social squalor. Key demands include: an immediate increase in wages, pensions and social benefits of 200 euros [about $320 Canadian]; price controls on essential goods; an end to prices set artificially higher than those in France; social housing; jobs for youths; adequate social services, etc. Not surprisingly, the 149 demands of the movement are popular in a population with an “official” unemployment rate of 22.7% (the actual level is estimated at close to 40%) and twice the rate of poverty in mainland France. ...

Rejection of colonial domination

Apart from expressing the people’s aspirations for emancipation, the revolt in Guadeloupe also draws its strength from an anticolonial consciousness that is shared and fueled by a long tradition of contestation. Faced with the columns of cops hastily dispatched by Paris to repress the movement, the demonstrators chant in Creole: “Guadeloupe is ours, Guadeloupe is not theirs, they shall not do what they want in our country.” Discrimination in hiring, monopolization of positions of responsibility by the French, monopoly rents extorted by the companies owned by the békés (the minority descendants of the French colonists), the government’s repressive response — Guadeloupe looks more like a colony than a department belonging to a Republic with the motto of Liberal, Equality, Fraternity. This neocolonial reality is bitterly denounced by the current movement. And this political consciousness is a major asset, for the ruling classes of the metropolis have precious little control over the situation, or ability to give a veneer of legitimacy to their domination.

A united and fighting collective

Lastly, the general strike fully embodies the meaning of the Creole word “lyannaj”: to win over, to bring together, to unite in solidarity, unity and strong attachment. The Collective against super-exploitation (Lyannaj kont prwofitasyon, or LKP), which is leading the social movement, includes 49 organizations (associations and unions) and its spokesperson, Elie Domota, is proof of a leadership committed to speaking truth to the metropolitan power and the local business class. Asked by the French daily Libération, on February 17, if he would continue to call for mobilization, Domota answered:

“Yes, for we have no choice. Yves Jégo [French overseas secretary of state] says everything is settled, but he has lied to us and the government is not keeping its word or respecting its undertakings. The only thing that interests us is the signing of our draft agreement with the government and the bosses on February 8, which provides for an increase of 200 euros for the lowest wages. But since no one is listening to us, we are forced to be in the street. ... For four weeks, the government has been chartering planeloads of cops to “casser du nègre” — break the niggers. I remain open to dialogue, but today the government has chosen repression and the Guadeloupians are going to resist.”

It is not hard to understand why the “Guadeloupe” case upsets the Elysée [the French presidency]. The French government and bosses fear that Guadeloupe will become an example for the workers in the metropolis. And that fear is warranted, for Martinique and La Réunion are showing that this type of movement is highly contagious, particular in a time of crisis and after a quarter century of neoliberal offensive.

Translated from Presse-toi-à-gauche,

The Sans Papiers struggling for equality through regularization are in solidarity with the colonies fighting for the equality of peoples!

Message of solidarity from the national coordinating committee of the undocumented (CNSP – Coordination nationale des sans-papiers)

Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane, Réunion and soon Kanaky — the colonies that extend the surface of France from 550,000 km2 to 10,26,000 km2 — are engaged in an extended general strike to get the rich colons (Békés) and the monopolies of metropolitan finance capital to pay for the crisis.

The workers of the second-class peoples in what remains of the French colonial empire in this early 21st century united all of their organizations and associations around a platform of 131 demands that was signed by Yves Jégo, the overseas colonies secretary of state, before the French government reneged on its word after his recall to Paris.

Parallel to this, the Élysée sent thousands of repressive forces to put an end to the exemplary mobilization of the Guadeloupian people. There are disturbing reports of provocative remarks that the sans-papiers unfortunately often hear when foreigners are being hunted down in metropolitan France: casser des sales nègres, des bamboulas, des bougnoules, des fourmies [“break the dirty niggers, the monkeys, the wogs, the narcos”].

And it was after more than a month of mobilization, the success of the 2.5 million strikers and demonstrators on January 29 in France, and the murder of a Guadeloupian trade-unionist, Jacques Bino, that the Sarkozy regime deigned to emerge from its scornful silence and to suddenly discover that the peoples of the overseas departments and territories are “French”.

This significant silence has also been shared to a large degree by the metropolitan media, which are now engaging in their favourite sport: disinformation and lies.

Who remembers today that the abolition of slavery was a deal that consisted in the Republic’s indemnifying the slaveholder ancestors of the white Béké colons, who thereby appropriated all of the wealth produced by the descendants of the emancipated blacks?!

The CNSP bows before the mortal remains of the murdered trade-unionist, presents its condolences to the family and comrades of this martyr of the cause of equality of the peoples.

The CNSP appeals to the unions, associations and political parties of France to

Ø Organize a work stoppage in every workplace and a minute of silence to the memory of Jacques Bino; and

Ø To demand that the French government satisfy the legitimate demands of the colonies.

The CNSP recalls that the Constitution of France recognizes that “humans are born free and equal in law” and that the United Nations Charter recognizes the right of every people to self-determination.

The CNSP calls on the French trade-union, democratic and progressive movement to assume its full responsibility in the face of the present serious crisis of finance capital, which forces us to create the necessary relationship of forces to make the bosses pay for their crisis so that the workers are not divided by the poisonous racism of the French State and have to pay for the crisis in place of the CAC40 [the Paris stock exchange index].

The CNSP urges all the undocumented to fight and demonstrate with all documented workers as an antidote to the anti-social and colonialist strategy of the bosses and the French government.

Paris, February 23, 2009