Monday, February 23, 2009

Guadeloupe and Martinique Workers Remain Defiant In Continuing General Strike

Guadeloupe and Martinique Workers Remain Defiant In Continuing General Strike

Trade union leader slain while France refuses to honor demands

Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire
News Analysis

A Guadeloupean trade unionist was eulogized on February 21 in Pointe-a-Pitre as the general strike continued in this French-controlled territory in the Caribbean. Jacques Bino was shot dead on February 16 when French riot police opened fire on strikers who have been engaged in a protracted struggle on the islands for over a month.

Bino was buried on February 22 in Petit Canal, located about 30 kilometers from Pointe-a-Pitre. The French authorities have blamed his death on the strike supporters who have attempted to defend themselves against the repressive actions of the riot police. The LKP has denied the allegations of the French authorities and accused them of using state violence to break the strike.

In the aftermath of Bino's murder, rebellions erupted in several parts of the country where workers and youth set fire to French-owned businesses, automobiles and government offices. Workers set up barricades to control the flow of traffic and to monitor the activities of the French riot police deployed to Guadeloupe in an attempt to break the strike.

French authorities resumed negotiations on Thursday, February 19 with the Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), a united front of 47 unions and political associations that have effectively shut down the islands since late January. However, the LKP demands were not met and negotiations were suspended on February 20 for the weekend. The talks resumed on February 23.

Elie Domota, the leader of the LKP, has described the negotiating posture of the business owners, who are largely descendants of the French colonial elite that has controlled Guadeloupe since the days of slavery, as insufficient. The workers are demanding a 200 euros monthly pay increase. However, the employers are only offering 50 to 70 euros.

In an interview with Radio France International(RFI) on February 21, Domota said that "Between today--this evening--and Monday morning, there will be bilateral discussions with the mediators to debate and find a way to make the positions evolve."

A large crowd of strike supporters stood in the square in front of the Point-a-Pitre port authority where negotiations were taking place on February 20. The general mood of the people was defiant and the workers chanted slogans in support of the strike and against the continuing colonial rule of France.

"Today we are studying all the proposals that are offered. We, too are offering proposals," Domota told RFI. "We are still based on the 200 euros. One thing for sure is that we clearly told the employers that they are starting a little low."

Domota exemplified the mood of the workers by emphasizing that "Concerning the strike movement, it continues, obviously. We are still on strike". (RFI, February 21)

In a statement issued by Robert Fabert, the past Deputy Secretary General of the General Federation of Trade Unions (UGTG), he writes: "After the president and prime minister of France intervened directly, negotiations between the French authorities and the LKP Strike Collective were renewed late in the afternoon of Thursday, February 19, and they continued throughout the day of February 20.

"Discussions are moving very slowly because the proposals put forward by the French government appear to be more like assistance to the poorest families rather than an across-the-board wage increase."

French Response to the Crisis

In response to the general strike in Guadeloupe and Martinique as well as a work stoppage in France during late January, the Conservative government of Nicolas Sarkozy has adopted a series of measures supposedly aimed at lessening the impact of growing unemployment resulting from the global financial meltdown.

The Economic Minister Christine Lagarde reported in early February that the country's gross domestic product (GDP) decreased by 1.2 percent in the final quarter of 2008. President Sarkozy on February 18 announced a package which included tax breaks and social service benefits valued at 2.65 billion euros($3.3 billion dollars).

This effort will provide aid directly to laid-off workers as well as retraining for idle employees. Just last year, the Conservative government set aside 50 million euros ($64 million dollars) to assist businesses.

Sarkozy on February 21 declared that the worst of the social unrest in Guadeloupe and Martinique were over. "Negotiations are under way. I hope they will be completed and that everyone understands that demands are not satisfied through violence but rather through calm, dialogue and serenity," the president told the French Press Agency (AFP).

Nonetheless, the leaders of the LKP have strongly disagreed with the assessment and proposals offered by the French government. "At the moment, the proposals seem particularly vague to us," Domota said in the aftermath of a meeting with the island's prefect, Nicolas Desforges and two French government envoys dispatched to negotiate a settlement to the strike. (AFP, February 20)

A confidant of Domota, Jean-Louis Nomertin, echoed the same view by saying that "Nicolas Sarkozy did not say anything."

Legacy of Slavery at the Root of Conflict

However, the strikes in both Guadeloupe and Martinique are not just about economic demands centered around wage increases and more opportunities for advancements in education and employment, but the continuing social legacy of slavery in the French-controlled Caribbean lies at the root of the unrest.

The fact that these territories still remain departments of France in the 21st Century is a source of resentment and growing militancy among the majority of the African populations, which number approximately 400,000 in both Guadeloupe and Martinique.

"They've got the money, they've got the power, they've got Guadeloupe," said protester Lollia Naily. "This is not a race thing. It is a money thing and it is a power thing." (Medicine Hat News, February 22)

The French elites known as "bekes" control most of the businesses in both territories and work in close collaboration with the colonial state based in Paris. In Martinique, where a general strike has also been going on since early February, the demonstrators have chanted
"Martinique is ours, not theirs!"

There are pronounced economic and social differences in the conditions prevailing in France and the islands. In Guadeloupe, unemployment is officially reported at 23 percent, in comparison to 8 percent in mainland France. 12 percent of the population in Guadeloupe are classified as poor, whereas only 6 percent are designated as such in France.

In Martinique, both the workers and the employers have agreed to lower prices on 100 commodities by 20 percent. Nonetheless, strike leaders are still demanding that the price of housing, gasoline, water and electricity must also be reduced.

Serge Romana, the president of the association which organizes commemorations of the abolition of slavery in the 19th century said that French President Sarkozy "must absolutely abolish all traces of neocolonialism and vestiges of slavery in the overseas regions." (Medicine Hat News, February 22)

Martinican intellectual and artist Victor Permal said of the French proposals that they are "general and blurry". He also condemned the French decision to send 450 riot police to suppress the strike.

"The people are starting to gain a clear notion of what belongs to them. So they become conscious that it is not France who should define their path and needs." (Medicine Hat News, February 22)

Meanwhile in France, there have been increasing mass actions of solidarity with the workers in Guadeloupe and Martinique. On February 20, French leftist politician Olivier Besancenot made and appearance at the rally held by Guadelopean workers outside the port authority in the capital of Pointe-a-Pitre. He expressed his support for the LKP in their negotiations with the employers and the French Conservative government.

On February 19 in Paris, 30,000 demonstrators turned out in Paris to show their solidarity with the striking workers in Guadeloupe and Martinique. Well known personalities were among the demonstrators including socialist politician Harlem Desir and Guadeloupe actress Firmine Richard.

"The government has to bring clear solutions to the table when negotiations begin again," Desir told the AFP. The protesters in Paris alternated between chants in the creole language, raising their fists and shouting: "Down with colonization", Two-hundred euros, yes we can!" and "Life is dear under those coconut trees."

Demonstrations were also held in France on February 21 in solidarity with the demands of the LKP as well as in sympathy with the murder of the trade union leader, Jacques Bino.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. The writer has been closely following the political situation in Guadeloupe and Martinique since the beginning of the strikes on January 20.

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