Crisis in the West Indies: the reasons for the anger

Since mid-November, Guadeloupe and Martinique have been shaken by riots. Behind the protest triggered by compulsory vaccination for caregivers and the suspension of those who refuse it, it is a much deeper crisis that shakes the West Indies, generated by a socio-economic and political situation specific to these overseas territories. Wed. Fifteen days after the start of the unrest, the government seems to recognize this fact, and even proposes, against all odds, to discuss a future autonomy.

In view of the turn of events, it is indeed difficult to limit the riots in Guadeloupe and the extension of the unrest in Martinique to a factual protest. Live ammunition was fired at the vehicles of gendarmes, looting of banks, food stores and pharmacies increased, clashes with the police left people injured, schools were closed, the curfew has been declared …

What is the crisis the name of?

If the riots were indeed triggered by claims linked to the health crisis, they cover much deeper problems. The Movements at the head of the mobilizations, as well as the elected officials, highlight the various reasons for the anger: social inequalities reinforced by the health crisis, the cost of living more expensive by 12% compared to the metropolis, the decrease purchasing power, the boom in youth unemployment, the lack of access to drinking water in certain areas and the lack of infrastructure or their dilapidation, the consequences of the scandal of chlordecone, a pesticide that has contaminated land and inhabitants… As for the pandemic itself, when it recorded one of its highest peaks last June, the quota was only two nurses for 100 patients!Instead of taking large-scale measures to alleviate the serious structural problems and anticipate the crisis which could only result, it is … the sanctions of personnel, in an already tense context, then the security escalation that were initially put on the agenda, further igniting the powder.

Curfew and casualties

Following a general strike, launched on November 15 and accompanied by multiple incidents, the Minister of the Interior initially responded only by sanctions against the demonstrators and the sending of police reinforcements from the Metropolis, including around fifty members of the GIGN and the Raid. The clashes between striking firefighters and gendarmes left people injured, leading to dozens of police custody. On the front line, the vast majority of firefighters would be unvaccinated: between 70 and 75%, according to Jocelyn Zou, Force Ouvrière union official. They are hit hard by the suspension sanctions decided by the state, which were to take effect on November 15, the day of the call for a general strike. On November 19, the prefect of Guadeloupe declared a curfew between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m.until November 23, then extended until the 28. 

The fear of a conflagration

While the call for a general strike was extended on November 22 in Martinique and the conflict threatens to settle in the long term, in the two islands, the state has very significantly changed its strategy to pave the way to dialogue. He visibly fears a stagnation that would be very prejudicial to Emmanuel Macron and his majority, a few months before the presidential election. The government is no doubt also afraid of the interpretation by some of the situation as an ultramarine « secession », and of the weakening that would result in the image of France … The fear of the resurgence of a violent political protest , which had appeared on several occasions in the past, intersecting with the emergence of a new so-called decolonial political discourse,raised fears of a conflagration which could become uncontrollable and have consequences in France. This prospect, at a particularly sensitive moment in French political life – the approach of the Presidential election – seems to have prompted the government to change its tune as regards the management of the crisis.

The same day the general strike hits Martinique, Prime Minister Jean Castex organized a meeting in Matignon with elected officials from Guadeloupe, who underlined the insurrectional dimension taken by the events on their release. They also urged the State to reduce the inequalities between their territory and France, the breeding ground of the current crisis. Jean Castex for his part announced, initially, the creation of a consultation body to support health professionals towards vaccination … On the same date, Emmanuel Macron, for the first time coming out of his silence on the subject , appealed for calm and assured Guadeloupe of the solidarity of the Nation in the face of what he recognizes to be « a very explosive situation ».The President of the Republic has also asked « not to give in to lies and manipulation » …

The Metropolitan and the forgotten of the Overseas …

On site, social demands are very explicit. An increase in wages and social minima is demanded. In Guadeloupe, 34.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. Poverty and wide social inequalities are reinforced by the health crisis. If the employees of the public sector, grouping together Metropolitan and part of the local privileged classes, continued to receive their wages much higher than that of the Hexagon, and that a part of those of the private sector, more affected by the crisis, have had access to the national system (partial unemployment, in particular), this is not the case for many undeclared workers, mostly indigenous, and belonging to the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Forgotten by statistics and INSEE studies, they constitute an invisible but very real economy. 

Behind the denunciation of social injustices thus point protests of an identity order, in particular against the newcomers of the Metropolis, with the wages much higher than those of the majority of the natives. Impoverishment, amplified by the Covid, exacerbates socio-ethnic tensions, in territories very marked by the history of slavery and racism.

Dizzying unemployment

In a tight labor market, parallel to the arrival of metropolitan officials attracted by a significant increase in their gross salary (+ 40% in Guadeloupe and Martinique), unemployment among natives has increased sharply, because Guadeloupe, like the rest of the West Indies, is the victim of very significant delays in training levels, according to the parliamentary report of November 23, 2021. According to an INSEE study carried out in 2019, in Guadeloupe, only 23% of 15-29 year olds have a job , but the unemployment rate for this age group is only 16%. The remaining 61% are simply identified as “inactive”. In the columns of Figaro, on November 23, Olivier Sudrie, lecturer at the University of Paris-Saclay and specialist in Overseas, stressed that « many young people are unemployable,often thrown out of the education system from the age of 16. Today, they have no vocational training. There is overwhelming social determinism. « He mentions the rise in the cost of living overseas and the freight rate which has jumped dramatically, reaching 200% in some places! 

In addition, in some areas, mostly inhabited by the indigenous population, not by the Metropolitan, access to drinking water itself is very difficult. A parliamentary report in June highlighted this particularly worrying water crisis.

A pesticide maintained on the market despite its known harmfulness

The local context in relation to vaccination is in fact also very marked by the scandal of chlordecone, a pesticide put on the market in the 1970s. If the United States banned its sale on their territory in 1977, because of proven poisoning, the French state has not withdrawn it, leaving it to be widely used, especially in banana plantations. It created serious health and environmental problems and increased mistrust of the government. If a legal procedure is finally underway, it was very late and many Guadeloupeans and Martiniquans equate this scandal with the vaccine, convinced that the latter can also lead to poisoning. One of the current demands of the unions is also the full coverage of tests for chlordeconemia, a disease linked to this pesticide.

The detonator

The UGTG, General Union of Guadeloupe Workers, called for the continuation of the protest, this mobilization reflecting « the depth of the suffering, inequalities, poverty and exclusion suffered by the population ». An observation not refuted by the President of the Guadeloupe region Ary Chalus, macronist breaking the ban: « We are more than 40 years behind compared to France in terms of economic development ». According to Olivier Sudrie, “This sporadic crisis could be the trigger for a much deeper social crisis”. In a territory where the informal economy is very important, the actors of this sector “have not been under the tap of social assistance: mechanically, inequalities have increased. « 

Towards the Autonomy of Guadeloupe and Martinique?

While various interministerial works were put on the agenda, as well as meetings of various local political bodies, the elected officials had requested, during the meeting organized at the Ministry, the opening of a debate on an evolution of the statute. of Guadeloupe. On November 26, Sébastien Lecornu assured, in an unexpected statement, that the government would be « ready to speak », and that he himself had « no taboos », as to the question of future autonomy. The Minister of Overseas Territories also announced the funding of 1,000 subsidized jobs for young people, with specific support and training, in the non-profit sector, to support local communities or social, sporting and environmental associations. According to Roselyne Bachelot, Minister of Culture, questioned onEurope 1 on the subject of a possible reduction in State allocations in the event of an institutional change in Guadeloupe, “there may be procedures for autonomy. We saw it in certain sectors, we saw it for example in the Collectivity of Corsica, but the State is always present and the State will not abandon these territories, obviously ”.

The vaccination obligation for caregivers and firefighters, the starting point of the riots, has been postponed to December 31. The suspension of remuneration for caregivers and firefighters who accept individual exchanges decided by the State will be lifted throughout the duration of this procedure.

A political reading of the riots

Fifteen days after the start of the riots in these « last confetti » of the French colonial empire, so doomed to oblivion by their remoteness from the Metropolis, apart from periods of unrest, the « West Indies crisis » is finally the object of political reading. Emmanuel Macron himself recognized on November 22 that the situation is « linked to a local context, to tensions that we know, which are historical ». However, it took more than two weeks for a member of the government to go there. Would it be conceivable if a similar situation arose in a metropolitan territory of the Republic? 

On November 27, two Corsican deputies – Jean-Félix Acquaviva and Paul-André Colombani – called for the opening of a dialogue around the autonomy of the island, like what has been proposed in Guadeloupe.

In Guadeloupe and Martinique, negotiations to get out of the crisis are continuing …

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