Political unrest continues in Guadeloupe and Martinique

Photo: Via france24.com

10th December 2022

Protests are into their third week in the French overseas territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique. 

Demonstrators had initially taken to the streets to protest impending mandatory vaccination rules for health workers and other COVID-19 restrictions, but the unrest has evolved into action against a broader set of socioeconomic issues. 

Over the last two weeks, residents have erected barricades and blocked roads as frustration mounted over the application of an order already active in mainland France requiring health workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

According to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, there have been at least 10 arrests made across the two territories after several journalists and members of the security forces were targeted. 

Reports emerged that shots were fired at police in Martinique, where a coalition of 17 trade union organisations launched a general strike in protest of the COVID-19 curbs. AFP reported that men on a motorbike shot at four journalists from the news agency, but no one was injured. 

In Guadeloupe, the protest saw an escalation of violence as protesters set fire to at least six buildings in the largest city Pointe-à-Pitre with four being completely destroyed, according to the fire service. 

France has reportedly already dispatched 200 police officers to the island, and Minister for France’s overseas territories, Sébastien Lecornu said 70 additional officers, as well as 10 more members of a special SWAT-like unit, would be deployed to better respond to the situation. 

With no end to the unrest in sight, France has moved to postpone the mandatory vaccination requirement until 31 December to allow for negotiations. 

“If the law of the Republic is to apply to all French departments, and therefore to Guadeloupe and Martinique, the details of its application must be adapted to the health and social situation of these two territories,” the health ministry said in a statement announcing the postponement. 

Despite this the unrest has continued. Some analysts have blamed the historic mistrust of the French Government’s handling of health crises which has remained since many people in Guadeloupe and Martinique were exposed to a toxic pesticide, known as chlordecone, used in banana plantations in the 1970s. Others say the protests shifted to local anger over broader issues with the French Government. 

Last week, Sebastien Lecornu met with four union representatives in Guadeloupe, who handed him a list of their demands. In addition to ending the vaccination mandate, demonstrators have been calling for salary increases and lower gas prices. 

The meeting hit a flashpoint when French officials took exception to union leaders’ refusal to denounce recent violence, including attacks on police and other security officers. “The condition for dialogue is for all political and trade unions to condemn the violence, and more specifically, attempts to murder” said a statement from the Ministry. 

Another important, but highly contentious issue is greater autonomy for the two territories. In a YouTube video released after the protests began, Minister Lecornu said that certain elected officials in Guadeloupe had raised the question of autonomy and changing its status as an overseas region. 

“The Government is ready to talk about this. There are no bad debates, as long as those debates serve to resolve the real everyday problems of people in Guadeloupe,” Lecornu said of the pursuit of great autonomy. 

He added that this was one of a series of initiatives the Government in Paris would be taking in Guadeloupe, including improving healthcare, infrastructure projects, and a scheme to create jobs for young people. 

However, Lecornu has since walked back his statements on autonomy. In a 2 December interview, he attempted to clarify his earlier position, saying that “autonomy” of Guadeloupe mentioned in the midst of a social crisis, would consist of “a decentralisation pushed to the extreme”. 

As unrest continues – albeit on a reduced scale – many have branded the Overseas Territories Minister’s visit as a failure. Negotiations have thus far not yielded concrete solutions as many elected officials and labour unions declined the invitation to meet. 

“This is not a failure, we are on the way to a return to order,” Lecornu said as he ended his 24-hour visit to Guadeloupe. Speaking on the absence of elected officials, the Minister said that while some had “let him down, the state is there to move forward”. 

As the stand-off continues between local elected officials, trade unions and the French Government, nightly curfews remain in some parts of the territories and roadblocks continue to pop up sporadically on key highways disrupting regular economic activity and livelihoods. 

This is a lead article from Caribbean Insight, The Caribbean Council’s flagship fortnightly publication. From The Bahamas to French Guiana, each edition consists of country-by-country analysis of the leading news stories of consequence, distilling business and political developments across the Caribbean into a single must-read publication. Please follow the links on the right-hand side of this page to subscribe, or access a free trial.