General strike shakes French colonies

March 6, 2009

The article below is reprinted from Richard Fidler's blog, A Life on the Left, on February 26. On March 4, the strike was suspended after 44 days, with most of the strikers demands being met.

The general strike in two French colonies in the Caribbean remains firm.

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 the gross inequality between the conditions of the black population and a tiny white elite. The latter are descendants of slaveholders and control 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 police, has underscored their colonial oppression.

The islands, along with two other French colonies — French Guiana in South America and La Reunion 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.

Prices of basic commodities and food staples, most of them imported, are much higher.

The strike in Guadeloupe is led by a coalition of about fifty organisations, under the aegis of the General Union of the Workers of Guadeloupe (UGTG), called the Collective Against Super-exploitation (LKP).

It has issued a platform of almost 150 demands, including 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; an end to lay-offs; workers' 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; and the development of media and other facilities in the local language and culture.

Similar demands have been raised by the strikers in Martinique.

In response, the French government sent a junior minister, Yves Jego. 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 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.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.

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 organisations including the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), a broadly based new left-wing party. It attracted many young protesters from the immigrant communities, many chanting in the Creole language.

A second solidarity action was called for February 28 by Caribbean associations in France, with the support of some union and political organisations. The NPA has sent its leading spokesperson, Olivier Besancenot, to the Caribbean colonies to report firsthand on the mobilisations.

One of the organisations in France expressing the strongest support for the Caribbean strikers is the Sans Papiers, an organisation of immigrants who lack the documentation to become full French citizens. It draws special attention to the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial implications of the strike movement.

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