Last updated March 1, 2009 7:08 a.m. PT
Meltdown pain felt in remnants of French empire
|In this Feb. 23, 2009 file photo, labor union members shout slogans during a protest in Point-a-Pitre, French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Lately weeks of strikes and outbursts of rioting on Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique have disrupted the Caribbean calm. The world economic crisis is pushing up prices of staples that already cost more than on the French mainland, and reviving the resentment of the mixed-race majority toward the descendants of slave-owners and white colonists who still run much of the islands' economies. For French President Nicolas Sarkozy, already unpopular, the Caribbean unrest is a big challenge. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)|
PARIS -- Christine Pochot buys croissants in her corner bakery, votes in French elections and is as French as her president - but lives a hemisphere away from his Parisian palace, on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
The island's primary schools use the same textbooks, the currency is the euro and city halls are engraved with "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite."
But lately weeks of strikes and outbursts of rioting on Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique have disrupted the Caribbean calm. The world economic crisis is pushing up prices of staples that already cost more than on the French mainland, and reviving the resentment of the mixed-race majority toward the descendants of slave-owners and white colonists who still run much of the islands' economies.
For President Nicolas Sarkozy, already unpopular, the Caribbean unrest is a big challenge. France is used to strikes and ethnic unrest on its European mainland, but torched cars and trashed stores on its far-flung islands are stoking worries of contagion to other overseas holdings or even to disenfranchised housing projects on the mainland that saw similar destruction in 2005.
It raises uncomfortable questions about race, France's efforts to define itself in the 21st century and the legacy of France's once mighty empire that today stretches across the globe from the North Atlantic and Caribbean to the South Pacific.
"We need a new conversation with the mainland," Pochot said during a visit to see family in Paris.
In Guadeloupe's main city, Pointe-a-Pitre, Judith Leborgne agreed. Buying cabbage and green beans from the back of a farmer's car, she said the 400,000 islanders should have more control over their economy.
"We could tend better to our own affairs. They said they were going to send a negotiator to tell us what is good for us. But they aren't the ones who should tell us what we need," she said.
Both women are Creole. Neither is clamoring for independence. Like most of Guadeloupe's protesters, they want Paris to pay them more heed, offer them real equality and a bigger chunk of the resources of one of the world's richest countries.
Guadeloupe and Martinique, along with La Reunion in the Indian Ocean and French Guiana on the northeast tip of South America, are France's four overseas "departements." Eight other French territories around the globe have varying degrees of autonomy.
Pochot travels on a French passport. Phoning Paris, 4,400 miles away, is a domestic call, while phoning nearby Haiti, 720 miles away, is a costly international one.
Though Guadeloupe is 100 percent French, Sarkozy took a month to respond to workers striking for higher salaries and lower prices. The government sent the minister for overseas territories to negotiate, only to pull him back prematurely. Then it sent in riot police.
"I don't think the president has a particular view, a vision, a sensitivity toward the overseas regions. I am not even sure he realizes they exist," Christiane Taubira, a leftist legislator from French Guiana in France's lower house of parliament, said on France-24 television.
Guadeloupe's economy is heavily dependent on the mainland, and nearly everything is shipped in from afar. Standard flour costs about twice as much as in Paris.
Civil servants who move to Guadeloupe get cost-of-living increases. Local workers, though, earn less on average than on the mainland. Unemployment and poverty are considerably higher than in European France.
Despite one death in Guadeloupe rioting, the unrest is less serious so far than during similar protest movements on the island in the 1960s and 1970s, and is nowhere near sparking the kind of fighting that saw France lose colonies from Algeria to Vietnam, analysts say.
Meanwhile, protests have been staged or planned in French Guiana and on La Reunion, and experts believe they have a bearing on mainland housing projects, where discrimination and unemployment helped drive the 2005 eruption of anger, largely by black and Arab youth.
"How France handles - or doesn't know how to handle, or mishandles - its colonial heritage, this is the problem afflicting France's suburbs," said Michel Giraud, researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
Polls suggest the troubles abroad are costing Sarkozy public opinion in mainland France. In a recent poll by BVA/Orange, 78 percent of respondents considered the Guadeloupe protesters' demands "justified." In the same poll, Sarkozy's approval rating sank six points from a month earlier, to 41 percent. The poll questioned 977 people Feb. 20 and 21 by telephone. No margin of error was given
Overseas, attitudes toward the French motherland are mixed. Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean, is holding a vote next month among its 187,000 islanders on whether to tie itself closer to Paris by becoming a full "departement."
French Polynesia, population 265,000, is going the other direction. The Cabinet in Paris approved a measure this week granting the archipelago greater say over local politics, including such things as reclassifying towns and cities.
Some in the overseas regions fear full independence would leave them flailing. Giraud said many see French citizenship and France's values of equality and fraternity as the best solution.
But he added, "The problem is that the nation promises (these values) but does not hold to its promises."
Associated Press writers Andre-Jean Vidal and Jonathan M. Katz in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe and Dheepthi Namasivayam in Paris contributed to this report.