Violent protests have taken place on the island against Paris’ vaccine mandate and it isn’t hard to empathise with their distrust of authority.
Many nations around the world have seen protests against new laws introduced to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. But Guadeloupe has a reason different to most.
The Caribbean island was colonised by France in 1674. It was taken over by Britain, then Sweden before once again coming under French colonial rule in 1815. It wasn’t until 1946 that it ceased being a colony and became an “overseas department” of France. This means Guadeloupeans are French citizens subject to the same laws as those of mainland France.
Unfortunately, though, they have not always been honoured with the same treatment. This partly explains why many Guadeloupeans have taken to the streets over the past two weeks to protest against France’s mandate that all health workers be vaccinated against Covid-19 or face suspension without pay. And the scope of the protests has since grown to include broader grievances with Paris.
Though some may shallowly dismiss these protesters as “anti-vaxxers”, it is understandable why the people of Guadeloupe are sceptical about anything health-related being imposed upon them by Paris — be there a global pandemic or not.
Underlying causes of anger
French Minister of Overseas Territories Sebastien Lecornu has condemned the protests for attacks on police and damage caused to infrastructure. As condemnable as this violence may be, the French state is no place to criticise destruction on the island given it is responsible for contaminating the soil with a toxic chemical that will remain active for 700 years.
For two decades up until 1993, a pesticide now known to cause prostate cancer was permitted for use in Guadeloupe by the French government. This despite it having been banned in mainland France three years prior.
The pesticide, chlordecone, was used on banana plantations and has poisoned not only soil but water and livestock. Agricultural and export businesses lobbied the government for continued use once the dangers had become clear. Most of these businesses and the industry bodies that protect them are run by descendants of French colonists. True to the twin spirits of capitalism and colonialism, they discarded human dignity to line their own pockets.
In 1979, two years before France officially approved its use in the Caribbean island, the World Health Organisation declared chlordecone was potentially carcinogenic. Eventually, in 2009 its use was banned worldwide. A parliamentary inquiry in the neighbouring island of Martinique - another French “overseas department” where the pesticide was also used - found France had been aware of the dangers of chlordecone since 1969.
The consequences of the French government selling itself to ruthless neo-colonial business interests have been severe.
About 95 percent of adult Guadeloupeans have been exposed to the pesticide and in 2018 - the island had the highest rate of prostate cancer in the world. It may also be a cause of premature births and inhibited brain development in children.
Beyond vaccine concerns, Guadeloupeans are also angry about low wages (one-third of the population lives below the poverty line), high unemployment and rising food prices.
The old colonial structure is still in place whereby the descendants of colonists, known as Bekes, continue to benefit from the privileges of their slave owning ancestors, such as land ownership, inherited wealth from plantation production, and compensation for “losses” encountered due to the ending of slavery in the 19th Century. Yes, France compensated the slave owners, not the slaves.
With these generational advantages, they have monopolised many industries, own much of the highest valued real estate and live in self-segregated areas. Black Guadeloupeans suffer as Bekes use their elitist dominance and connections with the French government to their benefit. Exploitation, poisoning and segregation — a 21st Century French neo-colonial paradise.
The vaccine mandate has now been postponed to December 31, and France says it is ready to talk about offering greater autonomy to the semi-colony. Being willing to talk and being willing to offer are two distinct things.
Various promises have been made to Guadeloupeans by the French state in the past. Protests over similar issues took place in 2009. Despite the then-President Sarkozy offering 580 million euros to improve things in France’s overseas departments, the systemic racial inequalities and their impact on living standards remain. In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron announced compensation payments for the chlordecone affair. Three years later, not a single penny has been paid.
Guadeloupeans will be wise not to get their hopes up about talks of greater autonomy. Even in cases of France granting independence to former colonies, those countries have had their hands severely bound by France’s economic greed.
The Macron factor
There are more reasons to be sceptical of France granting authentic autonomy to one of its overseas territories. President Macron has developed a reputation for being a “strongman” with authoritarian leanings. Amnesty International has condemned his curtailing the right to peaceful protest, and for years, there have been concerns about his drive to increase presidential powers.
Last year’s cabinet reshuffle placed his government further to the right in a bid to appeal to such voters for next year’s election. Given that the conservative response to talks of greater autonomy for Guadeloupe has been hugely critical, the actual granting of autonomy will not win him the support of a political demographic he’s so keen to gain.
We should be taking our hats off to the protestors in Guadeloupe. They have shone a much needed light to remind us of the brutality, hypocrisy and racism at the heart of one of the world’s most powerful and influential countries.
Wouldn’t it be great though if we could also take our hats off to France for admitting to and redressing this brutality, hypocrisy and racism? Well, history has so far shown us it places far greater importance on banana prices.
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