Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Guadeloupe and Martinique Workers Escalate Pressure on France to Meet General Strike Demands

Guadeloupe and Martinique Workers Escalate Pressure on France to Meet General Strike Demands

Tensions grow in La Reunion where workers threaten action

Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire
News Analysis

A six week old strike in the French-controlled islands of Guadeloupe has resulted in some members of the business community agreeing to a salary increase for employees. On February 27, the Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), a coalition of 47 trade unions and political associations, announced that a small number of local business owners conceded to a pay hike of 200 euros per month.

However, the largest employer's group in Guadeloupe, the MEDEF, refused to sign the deal. The announcement of these developments created optimism that the work stoppage would soon be over. Nonetheless, by March 1, the LKP leadership announced that it would be compelled to increase pressure on the business community to sign a deal honoring the demands of the general strike.

"Not only are we going to ask for an extension of the agreement but we are going to go from factory to factory to get it signed," said LKP spokesperson Elie Domota. (France 24, March 2)

In response to the intransigence of the MEDEF, the LKP called for a mass demonstration in the capital of Pointe-a-Pitre on March 2. In regard to the talks on February 27, Domota said that "About 46,000 employees are going to earn an extra 100 euros at least from the state, but we have to get the remaining 100." (France 24, March 2)

The French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie urged the MEDEF to act responsibly and make decisions that would benefit the island's economy as a whole. Willy Angele, the leader of the MEDEF in Guadeloupe, said that the strike was having a major impact on the country's economic stability.

"The liquidation of a number of small companies could mean 10,000 to 14,000 losses," Angele told the Le Parisien-Aujourd'hui en France. "The unemployment rate could jump from 23% to 30%."

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on March 3 that the strike could have long term economic consequences. "It can't go on much longer because the economy in Guadeloupe is staring into the abyss and there will be considerable damage linked to the length of this conflict."

Additional talks have centered around the need for major improvements in the education system in Guadeloupe. The French government has taken under consideration the demand for the hiring of additional teachers.

In Basse-Terre, the leader of the Les Vertes union, Richard Slessel, said on March 1 that "Most of the points have been covered. It's going down quite smoothly."

Arrests Made in the Murder of Jacques Bino

Meanwhile the French police have announced the arrest of five people in connection with the murder of trade unionist Jacques Bino on February 17. Bino was killed while leaving a meeting of the strike coalition. The French police have denied involvement in the murder even though most of the strikers have blamed the authorities for the escalation of tensions.

Judicial officials have filed criminal charges against a 35-year-old unidentified man who they claim fired the shots that killed Bino. France's BFM TV carried a story on March 1 which showed the state prosecutor Jean-Michel Pretre saying that the individual was the suspected triggerman in the killing.

Martinique Workers Explode in Rebellion

In neighboring Martinique, where workers have also been on strike since February 5, anger over the refusal of the French authorities to meet the demands of the people lead to the outbreak of rebellions on February 25 and 26.

According to the AFP, "Dozens of protesters gathered at city hall Tuesday night to demand results from slow-moving negotiations there over demands for pay increases. Around midnight, some began hurling rocks and bottles at police guarding the building, and officers responded by firing tear gas." (February 27)

People attacked stores, burned cars and threw bottles at French riot police. Two police were reported injured, with one considered serious.

Firefighters on the island of Martinique reported on Thursday that they had responded to over 50 arson attacks during the two day period, which included 14 torched vehicles and 40 garbage bin blazes. Most of the violence was centered in the capital of Fort-de-France.

It was reported that at least 27 people were arrested in the disturbances on February 25 and 26. As a result of the strike, the annual carnival celebrations that were schedule for February 22-25 was cancelled. The event is a main attraction for the tourist industry in Martinique.

Even though a tentative agreement was reached between business owners and the strike collective in Martinique on March 2, the strike continued until their are measures taken by France and its economic allies on the island to lower the costs of housing, food and other consumer goods.

Discontent Spreads to La Reunion

Another overseas French colony or "department," La Reunion, is also on the verge of labor unrest. A work stoppage was planned for March 5 over the failure of the French government to implement policies to alleviate the impact of the economic crisis. Unemployment figures in the French-controlled territories in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean are the worst in the entire European Union community.

The Indian Ocean island has a population of 802,000. French colonial settlers came to the territory in the 17th century and imported Africans who were enslaved to work on the coffee and sugar plantations.

Over the last several months there have been demonstrations against the high rate of unemployment and exorbitant costs of food and fuel. A coalition of trade unions, political parties and mass organizations was established on February 11. The alliance has put forward four major demands calling for a rise in salaries, increased social benefits, scholarships for students and the reduction in rents, fuel costs and food.

Impact of the Strikes in France

The failure of the Conservative French government of Nicolas Sarkozy to settle the unrest in the Caribbean has caused a drop in his popularity on the mainland. In a recent survey conducted by BVA/Orange, 78 percent of the people questioned expressed sympathy with the LKP in Guadeloupe and felt that the demands put forward by the coalition were justified.

In this same poll, respondents indicated that the approval rating of Sarkozy had fallen by six percentage points over the last month. The unrest in the Caribbean islands have encouraged other French-controlled territories to raise economic and social demands as well.

An Associated Press report published on March 1 says that "Overseas, attitudes toward the French motherland are mixed. Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean, is holding a vote next month among its 187,000 islanders on whether to tie itself closer to Paris by becoming a full 'department.'"

Also in another French-controlled territory in the South Pacific, Polynesia, with a population of 265,000, "The Cabinet in Paris approved a measure this week granting the archipelago greater say over local politics, including such things as reclassifying towns and cities." (AP, March 1)

Protests have also taken place in French-controlled Guiana on the South American continent. According to Michel Giraud, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, "How France handles--or doesn't know how to handle, or mishandles--its colonial heritage, this is the problem afflicting France's suburbs.

Developments in the islands are having a tremendous impact on the consciousness of African, Caribbean and Middle-Eastern communities in the suburbs around Paris. These areas have experienced periodic rebellions since 2005.

In a communique from residents of the Paris suburbs, it says that "the people originating from the overseas territories are victims of racial discrimination and are deprived of political representation.

"Because we are black, Arab or Muslim, our rights are ridiculed, our dignity is crushed, our cultures are scorned. In France, as in the departments and overseas territories, we all carry on the struggle against colonialism."
Abayomi Azikiwe has been following the situation closely in Guadeloupe and Martinique over the last several weeks.

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