A general strike crippling Guadeloupe and Martinique has exposed racial and class divides on the French Caribbean islands where a white elite wields power over a majority descended from African slaves.
Protesters on Monday stepped up their nearly month-long strike action in Guadeloupe by setting up roadblocks across the island. Police moved in to dismantle them and detained dozens of protesters.
The Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), a coalition of unions and leftist groups who launched the strike in January, is demanding that the state and employers to do far more to help islanders cope with the high cost of living.
But the strikes on both islands, which between them have about 850,000 residents, have also taken on a racial element.
On both islands the economy is largely in the hands of the “Bekes,” the local name for a tiny white minority who are mostly the descendants of colonial landlords and sugar plantation slave owners of the 17th and 18th centuries.
“A caste holds economic power and abuses it,” said Christiane Taubira, a French member of parliament for the overseas department of French Guiana on the south American continent.
She warned Sunday that the situation in Guadeloupe was “not far from social apartheid” but added that “the leaders of the LKP are not anti-white racists.
“They are exposing a reality,” she told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
Rama Yade, the only black minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government, said that over and above the problem of the cost of living, there is “a problem with the distribution of wealth” on the islands.
The social discord is “exacerbating” racial tensions, she said.
“Guadeloupe, it’s ours, Guadeloupe, it doesn’t belong to them,” is the chant heard at recent protests on the island, with a similar refrain heard on Martinique, both referring to the Bekes.
Many people on the islands, which lie about 7,000 kilometres (4,300 miles) from the French mainland, are resentful of the rich minority who over the centuries have mostly married only other whites.
That antipathy was heightened by recent remarks by one of Martinique’s richest men, Alain Huygues-Despointes, which scandalised many here.
Huygues-Despointes, a white, said in a documentary screened on French television late last month that one reason for avoiding inter-racial marriage was that he wanted to “preserve his race.”
The rich white families largely control imports to the islands, where nearly all manufactured goods come from abroad, and they own most of the supermarkets, which islanders say are charging inflated prices for basic goods.
The islands have the same supermarket chains that are found on mainland France, but they charge higher prices for the same goods.
“There is a monopoly problem, that of an insular economy which is the heir to colonial trading posts,” said the French minister of overseas affairs, Yves Jego.
Racial and class tensions gripped the French Caribbean island of Martinique on Friday as 2,000 protesters backing a wage strike chanted slogans against the island’s white elite.
Some 2,000 mostly black protesters marched Friday through the capital, chanting slogans against “bekes”–the descendants of colonists and slave holders. “Martinique is ours, not theirs!” they yelled.
The elite group makes up an estimated 1 percent of Martinique’s 401,000 residents, and own the majority of industries. Most of the Martinique’s population is descended from African slaves brought to work on its colonial-era sugar plantations.
Many working class families are struggling to make ends meet amid a global economic crisis, exposing racial tensions 160 years after slavery ended in Martinique.
But racial sentiments were inflamed after a one-hour documentary, “The last owners of Martinique,” was shown on TV last week. The program focused on how the white minority group has dominated the economy.
One white business owner was quoted as saying historians should look at “the positive aspects of slavery” and that a mixed-race family lacks “harmony.” Officials in France have opened an investigation against the businessman, Alain Huygues-Despointes.
Martinique’s prefect, or political leader, Ange Mancini, had been renting from Huygues-Despointes but announced he has terminated his lease and found somewhere else to live. Mancini is white.
Napoleon reinstated slavery here in 1803, mostly to please the beke plantation owners among whom he found his wife, Josephine. After slavery was abolished, the bekes still owned most of the island’s land and controlled its workforce.
The nine-day strike in Martinique has shuttered schools, stores and gas stations as residents continue to demand lower prices and higher salaries. Guadeloupe, another French Caribbean island, has been paralyzed by a three-week strike in which negotiations have broken down.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday asked government ministers to come up with long-term measures for stimulating and modernizing the economy of the islands, including by opening it up to more competition.