Sunday, February 22, 2009

Guadeloupe riots, could France be next?

Though it’s been absent from the American media, there has been a public uprising going on right in our backyard.

The Caribbean island of Guadeloupe has basically been shut down for weeks thanks to massive public strikes over the terrible economic situation there. Guadeloupe is an overseas territory of France, a legal status that strangely enough gives it the highest unemployment rate (about 25 percent) in the European Union. And that gets to the heart of the protests - the feeling among the residents of Guadeloupe that they’ve been forgotten as France struggles to deal with the global economic downturn. The trouble on Guadeloupe started when a coalition of local unions, the Collective Against Exploitation (or LKP in French), began a series of general strikes in protest to the economic conditions on the island.

But the French government was slow to respond, angering Guadeloupe’s residents and prompting other groups, outside of the control of the LKP to get involved in the protests, which began to turn violent. Since then there have been riots, with the burning of some businesses and at least one union leader has been killed; dozens of other protestors have been arrested. The violence has prompted tourists, who contribute a large chunk to Guadeloupe’s economy, to flee the island and France to fly in riot police to try to restore order.

French President Nikolas Sarkozy has promised a package of 500 million Euros in assistance to Guadeloupe and France’s other Overseas Departments, but protestors are demanding that the aid package also include payments of 200 Euros a month to workers to help raise the standard of living for all on the island. Locals also say that there is a long-standing racial component to the island’s problems - much of the economy is in the hands of the whites (or “Bekes” in the local slang), who are descendants of colonial-era landlords and plantation owners, while the majority of the island’s population is black. They feel that their concerns have, historically, not been taken seriously by the French and that economic development plans leave behind the majority black population.

Meanwhile the Guardian is warning that Guadeloupe’s problems could spread back to France in the coming months. Like Guadeloupe, France is suffering from stagnant wages and rising prices - meaning the buying power of a person's salary is falling. So too are Sarkozy’s approval ratings, now tumbling down to George W. levels, about 36% according to recent polls. Worse, there is a general feeling that Sarkozy doesn’t have any solutions to France’s economic problems. Recent polls also indicated that 63% of those surveyed think Guadeloupe-style riots could come to France soon if the economic situation doesn’t improve. Sarkozy is also ruffling feathers with his fellow European Union members. Recently he said that French car makers should only get government bailouts if they keep production in France and not ship it to places in the EU where costs are cheaper - like Slovakia, a move the EU says smacks of protectionism; France is also breaking EU economic rules by running a larger than allowed budget deficit this year.
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