While the economic situation provided the spark for the recent unrest in Guadeloupe and Martinique, racial tensions provided the fodder for the most serious strikes to have gripped the French Caribbean islands in 40 years.
For a few long weeks, Guadeloupe has been paralysed by a social upheaval of historic proportions. Guadeloupe and the neighbouring island of Martinique, that together comprise France’s overseas Caribbean departments, have not seen anything like this for 40 years.
In Pointe-à-Pitre, the largest city in Guadeloupe, the scars of the recent social upheaval are visible across the city: burned-out cars, barricaded roads and lowered blinds after mass demonstrations brought approximately 20,000 to the city streets in massive demonstrations of rage.
Days after the unrest gripped Guadeloupe, Martinique was also embroiled in a wave of violence.
Economic issues lie at the root of the public anger. The cost of living in the French Caribbean islands is higher than in mainland France and the islands are gripped by endemic unemployment.
One in five workers in the French Caribbean islands earns the official minimum wage – the same figure as in mainland France. But prices are much higher in the overseas territories. On an average in 2008, commodity prices rose by 18% in Guadeloupe and 8% in Martinique. The minimum wage only increased by 3%.
Some say distribution costs account for the higher prices in the overseas territories since commodities either arrive by sea or air. Economists however dispute this analysis and maintain that transportation costs only account for 10% of the price of imported goods.
Quite apart from the economic factors, the origins of the recent unrest in the French Caribbean islands go back to the ancient wounds related to the history of slavery.
In Martinique, racial tensions are sharp. While blacks form the majority of the population, the economy is largely in the hands of "békés", the local name for white descendants of colonial landlords and plantation owners.
While their monopoly of the economy has reduced considerably in recent history, the “békés”still hold approximately 20% of the key sectors of the economy of Martinique while they represent only one percent of the total population.
“Here, one does not live in apartheid, but we live apart. There is not enough of mixing,” says Marie-Claire Dormoy, who also happens to be white.
This crisis should enable a total overhaul of the system. In this context, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a general meeting between the principal actors in April. But it’s a move that is still widely viewed with skepticism.
Date created : 2009-03-06