March 14, 2009
According to the latest AFP dispatches, the situation in the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe appears to be settling down after their winter of discontent. These French overseas departments, known by the old Crusader term of Outremer that was first applied to the Holy Land, are remnants of a French Caribbean presence that started to unravel with the revolution in Haiti two centuries ago.
The fictional 1969 Pontecorvo film “Burn!” or “Queimada” showed an ambiguous figure played by Marlon Brando encouraging and then repressing a Caribbean island slave revolt against their white foreign masters. The French Antilles are of course full-fledged departments whose citizens elect representatives to parliament in Paris, and for that matter, to the European Parliament in Strasbourg/Brussels. But the language – and tactics – employed in recent weeks were more reminiscent of “Burn!” than similar protests over the cost of living in, say, suburban Lille.
One aspect of the problem is the clear colour difference between on one hand the emissaries of Paris, sometimes sitting with local business leaders, facing elected local officials and people on the street, the overwhelming majority of whom are Afro-Caribbeans. Protesters used the term “beke” to describe the white landowning business community, and what might elsewhere have been simply marches of the “have-nots” had a distinct undercurrent of racial remonstration.
This class/racial social structure has been around since slaves were black and masters were white. And the economies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, though no longer completely based on sugar cane, are nevertheless dependent on mercantile trading houses that tend to be in the hands of white families, described in the 1972 classic “West Indian Societies” by David Lowenthal, but pretty much unchanged in subsequent decades. Hence the racial undertones.
“Independence” wasn’t heard much during the protests – have the French overseas citizens of the “DOM” given up on independence, which carries its own risks (see Haiti, Madagascar)? Are there similarities to attitudes in the American Caribbean “commonwealth” of Puerto Rico, where the talk now is not independence but representation?
Stamp Image: Association Frontenac-AmeriquesAuthor : Gerald Loftus