What’s behind ‘explosive’ riots in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe?
The French Prime Minister is holding crisis talks with lawmakers later today in a bid to calm down rioting and a general strike in Guadeloupe. President Emmanuel Macron has said the violence over Covid-19 restrictions had created a "very explosive" situation, but some members of the opposition say it was predictable.
Unrest on the island of Guadeloupe erupted last week over curbs imposed by Paris, including the mandatory vaccination of health workers and health pass rules.
On Saturday, Paris authorities deployed 200 extra police officers, including elite police commandos after pharmacies and shops were looted and vehicles torched.
Police arrested 38 people overnight Sunday for breaking a nighttime curfew. Two security forces were injured.
Thirty people appeared in court on Monday for allegedly participating in the unrest, according to local prosecutor Patrick Desjardins.
Protestors had put up road barricades, impeding traffic and forcing the closure of schools in Pointe-à-Pitre, the island’s main city.
No giving in
President Macron acknowledged the gravity of the situation and urged local politicians not to mix pressing Covid concerns with colonial-era grievances and longstanding complaints that the territory is neglected by Paris.
“We will not give in to lies, distorting of information and the exploitation by some people of this situation,” he told reporters on a visit to the northern French city of Amiens, calling the situation “very explosive”.
“We do not play with health and we will not let the health of the French be played with for the sake of political infighting,” he added.
Prime Minister Jean Castex is holding crisis talks in Paris with Guadeloupe lawmakers later today to look for a way out.
Some say the unrest reveals a deeper discontent over the relationship between Guadeloupe and metropolitan France.
While the demonstrations were sparked by the vaccine mandate, they also express “the depth of suffering, inequality, poverty and exclusion felt by the people, notably youths and the elderly,” said Maite Hubert M’Toumo, secretary general of Guadeloupe’s main trade union the UGTG, which has called for continued protests.
Meanwhile some members of the opposition put responsibility firmly at Macron’s door.
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"Obligatory vaccination was the straw that broke the camel’s back” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the hard-right National Rally.
“Everything was predictable,” said Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the hard-left France Unbowed. “Emmanuel Macron chose to look elsewhere and let the situation degenerate.”
“To be honest we saw it coming" said Socialist senator and Guadeloupian Victorin Lurel. “We knew the protest movement was in preparation, it was announced on social media a few days before," he told RFI.
“What’s surprising is that the state didn’t anticipate it and pre-position forces in strategic places," he said. “We knew different struggles would come together. The health pass and the vaccine is just a pretext for other demands.”
Among those demands are better access to tap water, for which Paris has shown “indifference” and more job opportunities for young people.
The state "hasn’t taken the full measure of the defiance and suspiscion about everything the authorities say," Lurel explained.
Prime Minister Castex is meeting Guadeloupian lawmakers this evening for crisis talks and wants to show a united front against the strike action and violence.
But Lurel says it shows how the government has once again failed to see the depth of mistrust in the authorities.
“The unions are already saying they haven’t delegated their powers of negotiation [to us] and that state officials are there only to relay demands, not to negotiate in their name."
Distance creates indifference
Lurel is a former Overseas Territories minister and recognises problems between Paris and its departments in the Caribbean go back years.
“It isn’t just since Macron," he says. "Distance creates indifference, and when we defend issues in parliament, no one listens.”
The government needs to start listening, he says, not least if they want to avoid a repeat of 2009 when protests over the cost of cost of living brought Guadeloupe and Martinique to a standstill for 44 days.
Not a unified fight
The idea the unrest is all about unvaccinated healthworkers is rejected by Guadeloupian sociologist Patricia Braflan Trobo.
“90 percent of health workers in Guadeloupe have agreed to get jabbed because they depend on state run service and it’s the law,” she told RFI.
“It’s not a Guadeloupian movement against obligatory vaccination and the health pass,” she continued.
What's more, people in the private sector “do not understand that they are stopped from going to work and some will lose their jobs because their tools – such as supermarkets and jewellery shops – have been destroyed.”
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