In the French Antilles (Guadeloupe and Martinique) a general strike has completely shut down economic activity on both islands since the 29th of January. The population of these islands are protesting against the cost of living in particular rising costs of essential foodstuffs and fuel. The following interview is aimed at explaining the current movement and the popular anger that launched it. The interviewee, Marcel, lives in Martinique and is a CNT activist.

What is the current situation in the French Antilles?

The official unemployment rate in Martinique is 22%. 8% of the population receive the RMI ( a temporary social payment made to the unwaged). There is little industry in the Antilles, a hangover from colonial times. It was, and still is, about buying "finished" products from France and only producing raw materials for export, such as sugar cane or fruit, on the islands.

The only accepted industrial sector is the production of rum. After having long been landowners, and the true owners of the Antilles, the békés - descendants of the white plantation owners - are nowadays involved in distribution, owning the supermarkets and car dealerships. Ironically industrial work and organisation were born in the islands, long before they emerged in Great Britain. In the 18th century France was the world’s main producer of sugar and as a result had made large investments in the Antilles. The most up to date and expensive machinery was sent from Europe to the islands, along with personnel to run it. Initially they were from Europe but there were never enough qualified people and they needed to train slaves in the mainland

The organisation of work was based on a division similar to that of the 19th and 20th century workshops in Europe. But, as it was in England, it was difficult to recruit enough workers. The most efficient and cynical solution was to capture slaves and transport them to the Caribbean. The exploitation; the blood and the horror, formed a melting pot a crossroads between Europe, Africa and America.

Who lit the Flames?

Naturally a lot of resentment has built up against the whites, even if among those who can take the wider situation into account. The anti-white racism is nothing compared to what blacks must support on the mainland.

What is true, for example, is that an business when faced with a choice between a black candidate and a white one with equal qualifications, or even a more qualified black candidate will usually pick the white one. Career progression works in the same way; it’s not luck that allows a white to climb the ladder faster than his black colleague.

But what has set of the protests now is simply the cost of living in a country where the average salary is much lower than in France and where the price of essential goods is often three times higher than in the mainland.

What precedents can be found in previous struggles in the Antilles?

The largest pre-war movement came after the assassination of André Aliker, the editor of the communist newspaper ’Justice’ which denounced the corruption and greed of the békés.His funeral, in 1935, brought together a massive crowd. Several months later with the support of the popular front the island’s first union was created, the CGTM.

It is from this period that the first employment laws on the island date; even if they’re often not enforced.

I will limit myself here, there’s a lot I could mention! So much has happened in the last 50 years in Martinique. The strikes and riots of 1959, when security forces committed unheard of violence when they opened fire crowds of demonstrators. This lead the municipal council, whose mayor had been Aimé Césaire since 1945, to call for independance. Finally we could mention the repression of the banana workers’ strike in 1974; when the CRS troops in helicopters fired machine guns at crowds of demonstrators, killing and wounding a number of people. The singer Kolo Bart has recently evoked this massacre, of which we’ve recently commemorated the 25th anniversary, in a song.

How is the movement in Martinique organised?

There are the CNCP, local committees in each area, nationalists and anti-colonialists very close to the MIM whose leader Alfred MARIE-JEANNE is president of the regional council.

The unions regardless of afiliation seem to be relatively more powerful than in the mainland. Their unity in action came about spontaneously, which led quickly to cohesive mass action.

What is specific influence of independent unionism? What are the specific demands?

There is a growing tendancy to demand more and more. Especially in Guadeloupe where the UGTG won 51% percent of the votes in the recent elections to the employment tribunals. Its methods are radical, reminiscent of North American trade unionism. It’s not a good idea to oppose a stirke that they’ve called. Bosses and businessmen who ignore their orders will pay dearly for it. In general they always obey the UGTG’s orders. During each strike they encourage workers to join the unions.

The UTGT, like the UTGM brings creole culture and identity to the forefront; the fight against colonialism and the békés. They want to develope a polyculture allowing the islands to achieve sulf-sufficiency. The same goes for industry, they want to create on the islands what they currently lack.

Interview by Jérémie, International Secretary of the CNT.

Translation : Jeff Costello