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French Caribbean - explainer

Turmoil in France’s overseas departments and territories

by Sarah Elzas

Article published on the 2009-02-16 Latest update 2009-02-21 15:30 TU

Protesters in Le Moule, Guadeloupe, 14 February 2009(Photo: Julien Tack/AFP)

Protesters in Le Moule, Guadeloupe, 14 February 2009
(Photo: Julien Tack/AFP)

On 20 January, 2009, a group of labour unions in the French department of Guadeloupe in the West Indies, along with local politicians and community groups, declared a general strike to protest the high cost of living on the island, where the basic food items can cost over twice as much as they do on mainland France.

Government ministries closed their doors, as did schools, petrol stations and the port, the source of most of the island’s tourism income, which comes on cruise ships.

A similar strike was called on 5 February in neighbouring Martinique, and Réunion Island, in the Indian Ocean, is threatening to call a strike on 5 March.

France around the world

Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion Island are three of France’s four overseas departments, which also include French Guiana. They are called Doms, Départements d'outre-mer, or Overseas Departments, and as departments of France, they are part of the European Union.

France also has Toms, Territoires d'outre-mer, or Overseas Territories, which have various administrative relationships with France, and include Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy islands in the Antilles, French Polynesia and the island of Mayotte, which is claimed by the Comoros.

The Doms are administered by a Junior Minister in charge of Overseas Departments, who answers to the Interior Minister. The current Junior Minister is Yves Jégo

Why strike?

The Komité kont pwofitasyon (LKP), the Anti-profiteering Committee, which is leading the strike in Guadeloupe, initially demanded that the prices of all basic food items be reduced by 50 euro cents, that the price of petrol be lowered and that all low-paid employees receive a 200-euro-a-month salary increase.

Jégo, who first arrived on the island two weeks after the strike started, helped negotiate a reduction in petrol prices. The LKP is now focusing on a pay increase, which they say the government should finance. This is also a demand in Martinique.

The government has said that it is not its role to pay for salary increases.

More than the economy

The strikes and protests, ostensibly about the high cost of living, are also being fed by frustration over how people in France’s overseas departments are treated by the government.

The history of the French West Indies, with their history of slavery, has a racial aspect that exacerbates the situation.

“There’s a power relationship of domination that’s become economic,” explained Mourad Slimani, spokesperson of the Unade, the Union of Associations for Diversity and Equality.

“In Martinique the majority of landowners are descendants of slave-owners. And today the conflict between employees and employers is mixed in with a historical conflict over reparations.”

On 13 February, President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an inter-ministerial committee to be formed in order to address inequalities in the departments.

Jégo says that anything decided for Guadeloupe or Martinique will apply to the other departments as well, in order to keep the strike movement from spreading.