Frustrations near boiling point in the French Antilles

Frustrations near boiling point in the French Antilles

In this 30 November 2021 photo, people walk past a roadblock made of burnt vehicles and debris in the locality of La Boucan in Sainte-Rose, Guadeloupe. Unrest in the French overseas territory began with a protest over compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations for health workers, but quickly ballooned into a broader revolt over living conditions, and spread to next door Martinique.

(AFP/Christophe Archambault)

In France’s overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, people wonder why, with so many endemic problems, the law on Covid vaccines is the only one France seems intent on enforcing. Since November 2021 the French Antilles (also known as the French Caribbean or French West Indies) have been rocked by large-scale political protests, with demonstrations, strikes and barricades. Popular anger is directed at the state: shots have been fired at the police, occasionally with military weapons; customs premises and a gun shop have been looted, a supermarket, shops and cars burned. The French government sent in elite police units, but in Guadeloupe protesters occupied the regional legislature for two days in December, and on 4 January occupied the hospital in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe’s second largest city, and beat up its director.

Three factors have led to this crisis. The first is popular protests against the Covid pass, which people claim ‘makes life hell’, and healthcare professionals refusing mandatory Covid vaccination. People remember the chlordecone scandal, and again believe the government is trying to poison them; chlordecone (marketed as Kepone in the US) was an insecticide used on banana plantations in 1972-93, causing prostate and (reportedly) breast cancers, premature births and development issues in infants. For years the French government ignored World Health Organization warnings of its carcinogenic potential (issued as early as 1979), and more than 90 per cent of Guadeloupeans and Martiniquans were exposed.

The second factor is the rising prices of petrol and bottled gas for cooking, which have increased the cost of living. Last is the feeling that the French Antilles are treated like colonies. Guadeloupe and Martinique are in fact French overseas territories or departments — part of metropolitan France itself — but the local population tend to forget this and have a deep-seated resentment of the Béké (white Creoles).

They see the huge profits made by local supermarkets — mostly owned by a Béké-founded group — as exploitation of inherited privilege. This oligopoly (which the authorities have failed to legislate against) pushes food prices up: official figures show the same products can cost 38 per cent more in the French Caribbean than in metropolitan France; in reality it can be twice as much.

The Autonomous Republic of La Boucan

Trade union roadblocks weren’t enough to start a movement of any size, but they soon gave way to ‘maroon [runaway slave] barricades’ manned by ordinary people who began to play a central role in the protests. The self-proclaimed ‘Autonomous Republic of La Boucan’ blockaded the town of Sainte-Rose, paralysing Guadeloupe’s entire construction sector. Out of the chaos, a list of demands has emerged: revoke mandatory vaccination and Covid passes, cut taxes on petrol and gas, combat the rising cost of living, create jobs for the young.

Meanwhile, youths in hoodies have been looting shops and extorting drivers at wildcat roadblocks. Frédéric Dumesnil, aka Bwana, from Baie-Mahault, a mediator for local NGOs, thinks the violence was inevitable: “There comes a point where people have had enough of marching in the heat and attending endless meetings. It’s like a third world country here: we have problems with our drinking water, and half our young people are unemployed [...]. [Emmanuel] Macron said himself that ‘we are at war!’”

Bwana continues: “The youths on the barricades say: ‘They never worried about our health when they were using chlordecone. How come they’re so worried now that we have to get vaccinated?’ When it’s the construction bosses holding the country to ransom, they negotiate a solution in three days. But when it’s us, they send in the GIGN and the RAID [police tactical units].”

The owner of a small business employing nine people told me he was getting by, though things had not been easy. He was proud of his roots and keen to work with Caribbean and African suppliers, but first had to overcome French and European Union administrative barriers, which cut the French Antilles off from the rest of the region. He also found it hard to get a bank loan: local institutions are wary (except when issuing consumer loans) and small businesses don’t have much faith in their judgment. Support from local authorities has too many strings attached, and in any case you need connections.

The businessowner started small, importing essential oils from neighbouring Dominica with help from fishermen friends. The business gradually expanded, using second-hand cars and an old forklift. It started off in a one-room apartment, then moved to two rooms, then a converted nursery. It was ten years before he could hire a chemical engineer and start creating real added value. Few entrepreneurs get this far: Boris Dupoux, an engineer involved in local entrepreneurship development, says: “If you feel you’re at the end of the supply chain, that you’re not really creating any value and you’re just consuming, it makes you feel degraded and unrecognised.”

A colonial legacy of discrimination and underdevelopment

The politicians are partly responsible. People on the barricades complain about a lack of transparency in the allocation of public funding; about national and European aid that never makes it into the economy and gets ‘lost’; and the disastrous way the water network has been managed.

Harry Durimel, mayor of Pointe-à-Pitre, says: “Our water problems come from 40 years of mismanagement by the local authorities and multinationals such as Générale des Eaux.” Durimel, previously head of an environmental NGO, found out when filing a complaint that “the council had signed an undertaking not to complain about the water company once their contract ended. But when they left, the pipes were crumbling.” The uplands in Guadeloupe can get as much as ten metres of rainfall a year, but the state of the network means the water can be off for months at a time. Hundreds of thousands of euros that users have paid towards maintenance seem to have vanished into thin air.

Élie Domota, former general secretary of the UGTG (Union Générale des Travailleurs de Guadeloupe) and spokesperson for the Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (LKP, Alliance Against Profiteering, an umbrella group of trade unions and social movements), says current events remind him of May 1967, when police and demonstrators clashed following a racist attack.

“The bosses back then said: ‘The Blacks will go back to work when they’re hungry’[...]. Now [France’s] minister for overseas territories, Sébastien Lecornu, says anyone who doesn’t want to get vaccinated can see a psychologist, who will tell them why they’re wrong.

“He says...our refusal is ‘cultural’, as if we were incapable of understanding scientific discussion. It’s like chlordecone: the government is lying to us. All we want is for our doctors to be allowed to prescribe ivermectin [an antiparasitic falsely claimed to be effective against Covid], so we have a choice of treatment or vaccine, like other Caribbean countries. They say it’s the law. If that’s true, why don’t they enforce the laws on water treatment and distribution? Or on the amount of chlordecone in the water supply? Or seismic standards for public buildings?”

In recent years, Guadeloupeans have come to feel that nothing works properly. The public education system has operated only sporadically for years, amid repeated strikes, Covid lockdowns and the current protests. The pandemic has temporarily saved the university from imploding, as remote learning seems to have shut down public score-settling in the local media. The state of the hospital at Pointe-à-Pitre has had extensive media coverage: water leaks, floods, mould, insect infestations, a fire in 2017, and, above all, severe staff shortages. Frequent strikes by non-medical staff eventually spurred the authorities into action, and a new hospital has been under construction for two years.

Waste collection is often stopped by fires at treatment centres. The latest strike lasted two months (July-August 2021), and the prefectural authorities have condemned poor financial and technical management, in a barely disguised criticism of the local authorities who appointed those in charge. Social security staff recently had a 50-day strike after accusing their bosses of racism and discrimination. They have been complaining for years about the poor service the agency provides, due to the steady reduction of staffing levels.

Support for the protests, but disgruntlement over the disruption caused
Martinique activist group RVN were in the news in 2020 after toppling statues of the Empress Josephine and 17th-century trader Pierre Bélain d’Esnambuc, symbols of European colonialism, and looting a distillery shop accused of displaying symbols of slavery. RVN also instigated a premature harvest on a banana plantation in protest at land-grabbing by Békés, and symbolically renamed the village of Schœlcher (named after Victor Schœlcher, commemorated in the French Antilles as the architect of the abolition of slavery). The name they chose was ‘Romain’, after a slave who defied the ban on drumming on his plantation to start the movement that led to emancipation on 23 May 1848.

Popular events such as Carnival have been cancelled in the name of fighting the pandemic, while those aimed at ‘outsiders’, such as the Raid des Alizés (a multi-sport competition for women) and the Jacques Vabre yacht race, have gone ahead – another sign of colonialism, according to many locals.

Though most people support the protest movement – more than 60 per cent are still refusing vaccination – the form it has taken irritates them. They can’t understand why roads have to be blocked and are alarmed by the violence of masked, and sometimes armed, youths. The local economy is made up of tens of thousands of small businesses employing nearly 100,000 people across the islands. They have been badly affected by the movement, and their owners see the repeated blockades, especially of the port at Pointe-à-Pitre, as unfair.

A man who works at the hospital says the authorities are even preventing his children from playing sports: they now need a PCR test before every gym class, though they’ll be mixing with others who haven’t been tested because they have been vaccinated, and could still pass on the virus. Over the last two years, accessing sports facilities and clubs has become more and more difficult, a concern given the rise in youth obesity.

The age pyramid, by contrast, is unnaturally slim in the younger age bands, owing to an exodus of young people from the age of 20: half go to study overseas, others leave to find work or better opportunities. Over 90 per cent say they would like to move back, but won’t just yet, because of the current situation.

This article has been translated from French.

This article was originally published by Le Monde diplomatique and is republished here with the permission of Agence Global. It was translated to English by Charles Goulden.