A little over a year ago I found myself surrounded by thousands of revelers parading through the streets of Fort-de-France, Martinique. Carnaval was in full swing and events were planned from Sunday through Wednesday, each day bearing a particular theme with suggested attire. My two friends and I played along, descending from the hills of Schoelcher into the capital city to walk alongside the major avenues or standing in front of our Eurocentric safe-haven Cyberdeliss which afforded us refreshment from the heat and humidity. I can’t say that it was a spiritual epiphany for me, despite my Catholic upbringing, nor was there any sort of impassioned awakening for all things culturally Caribbean, but my week-long experience on the island has left a lasting impression.
Born and raised in the heathen American West offers me no concept of what Carnaval is all about beyond the stereotypes presented on television and in movies. The trip had been planned before we knew that our schedule coincided with Martinique’s grandest celebration and learning we would be sharing our vacation with the Mardi Gras crowd invoked a nightmare of New Orleans inspired debauchery. Nothing could have surprised me more when I saw days of drinking and dancing with no fights, flashing, puking or strong police presence. The locals were genuine, nice, exceedingly polite and had discovered a way to enjoy themselves without striving for an advanced state of inebriation. My original concerns also proved to be unfounded– sticking out like a sore thumb on a Caribbean island with high unemployment and low standard of living without any grasp of the language or ability to discern a dangerous neighborhood from a quiet one did not lead to having my kidneys stolen.
The French Overseas Departments have escaped the perils of their neighbors. Crime rates are very low by any standard but especially so when compared to places like Jamaica or Haiti. The theory of my friend who lived on the island while working on research for his dissertation suggested the economic stability offered by France and the hard won rights awarded to the former colonies by entrance into the Republic as states as opposed to territories prevented a descent into chaos and violence.
But it’s not a case of Happy Happy Happy Island People. There has long been discontent amongst the citizenry of the Overseas Departments. Although each of the four– Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion, and French Guyana– are technically as much a part of France as Hawaii is a part of the States, the long arm of the government has not always treated them as equal. None of the departments are self-sufficient, relying on yearly subsidies for the public sector and imports for the private. There is not a lot of industry and so there are not a lot of jobs to go around for the growing population. Then there’s the historical implications– the slowly simmering memories of places that were once colonies populated by slaves subjugated by minority rule which, in practical terms, still exists today. On Martinique the 1% white minority, comprised in large part by the descendants of the Creole Elite, owns many of the businesses. The relationship between these “beke” upper class and the black population continues to be strained:
But racial sentiments were inflamed after a one-hour documentary, “The last owners of Martinique,” was shown on TV last week. The program focused on how the white minority group has dominated the economy.
One white business owner was quoted as saying historians should look at “the positive aspects of slavery” and that a mixed-race family lacks “harmony.” Officials in France have opened an investigation against the businessman, Alain Huygues-Despointes.
As the global economy slipped into depression the situation throughout France became tense. Workers have already had massive strikes on the mainland with a General Strike planned to occur within weeks. Public employees began striking on Guadeloupe nearly a month ago which brought the island to a stand-still. Government ministers entered into talks with labor groups but negotiations faltered and the streets of Pointe-a-Pitre were clogged with roadblocks, burning cars and looted shops. Three weeks into the strike workers on Martinique joined, demanding a higher minimum wage, lower utility bills and price controls on basic food staples. The situation there has not grown as violent as in Guadeloupe where one protester, Jacques Bino, has been killed while roving bands of disaffected youths have been shooting at police but the racial issues of the legacy of colonialism have been brought to the foreground. France responded by sending over a hundred gendarmes to the island; the Minister of the Interior, Michele Alliot-Marie, has also bolstered Guadeloupe’s police presence by three hundred. The mayor of Fort-de-France responded by canceling the annual Carnaval parades and street celebrations for the first time in history, saying it was in solidarity with the killed protester in Guadeloupe.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy is enjoying his lowest approval ratings since being elected two years ago. Solidarity marches have been held in Paris, French Guyana and Reunion, and collective anger from the middle class urbanites to the poor of the banlieue are preparing for massive strikes in response to a failing economy. There’s no end in sight for the worldwide recession so the situation will grow worse before it gets better. It makes me sad to think that the streets of Fort-de-France are filled with angry protesters and not joyous celebrants, and it makes me worry that the people who surrounded me a year ago are facing a crisis that can only become more dire in the following weeks.