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27 Feb, 2009 14:50

France’s empire strikes back

France’s empire strikes back

Legally as French as Paris, France’s overseas departments have rebelled against the former colonial power with riots and strikes. International economic woes have exposed local resentment over racial divisions.

Exhausted negotiators hailed progress in their bid to end Guadeloupe’s general strike on Thursday morning (February 26). Weeks after the strike began, the rioting, which culminated in the death of a union leader and three police officers shot dead, may have ended but could restart if talks break down. Hundreds of gendarmes from mainland France have been brought in to try and quell the unrest.

Unions, business leaders and French officials met to draw the dispute to an end. The Collective Against Exploitation (LKP), leading the strikers, is calling for lower food prices, which are much higher than in mainland France, and increased wages for low earners.

On Monday night (February 22), French government representatives rejected the union’s demands and were awaiting advice from Paris on how to proceed. Subsequently, strikers threatened to rebuild their barricades if talks, which began again on Wednesday (February 25), were unsuccessful.

Inflation, per capita income and unemployment at 20% have all instigated the dispute, fuelled by resentment over land and a lack of perceived respect from France.

Slavery still an issue

The immediate problems in Guadeloupe, which France annexed in 1674, are a result of the global economic problems. However, the influence of slavery cannot be ignored and the former colonial power is being held responsible.

France did not revoke slavery until 1848 and the residue of colonialization remains. There is great resentment at the continued power of white families. Even now, the tiny minority who make up Guadeloupe’s economic elite are the descendents of slave owners. Much of the population is descended from African slaves.

This racial power structure is reflected on France’s other overseas departments, where global economic problems are opening up old divisions.

Failed effort to diffuse crisis

In a bid to defuse the crisis and prevent it from spreading, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a development package of $US 730 million for France’s overseas “departments”. However, strikes have spread to neighboring French islands.

A general strike continues on the expensive Caribbean island of Martinique, where there has been rioting and looting this week, underpinned by racial and class tension.

Police from the French mainland have been sent to Martinique as the violence over prices and wages continues. The island is tightly bonded to France, inhabitants rely on basic goods imported from France and sold in French-owned supermarkets at high prices.

On the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, a strike has been called for March 5. Facing similar problems as the other departments, protest groups are watching developments elsewhere. The department of French Guiana on the north-east coast of South America also has a developing protest movement.

While France has problems with some of its foreign departments, Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean, is holding a referendum in March about whether to integrate further from an overseas collectivity of France to an overseas territory. Geographically, but not politically, Mayotte is part of the Comoros Islands, whose government has described the vote as a “declaration of war by France”.

Accusations of “colonial occupation”

The Democratic Front of the Comoros has called on the President of the Union of the Comoros, Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, to act against the “colonial occupation” by France of Mayotte.

A hangover from colonial days, France is made up of more than merely the mainland in Western Europe. It has four overseas departments – Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion Island and French Guiana – which are part of the European Union. Additionally, it has Overseas Territories, such as the island of Mayotte, which is claimed by the Comoros.

“The economy has kept the hierarchy of the 19th century, with all its flaws and injustices,” said Nelly Schmidt, historian at France’s National Centre of Scientific Research, speaking of Guadeloupe.

Under global economic pressure, it appears the bonds holding these disparate historical anomalies together are creaking with the strain.

Jonathan Stibbs for RT