French minister in talks with unions on troubled Caribbean islands

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French minister in talks with unions on troubled Caribbean islands
© Christophe ARCHAMBAULT French Overseas Minister Sebastien Lecornu is visiting the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique over ways to end more than a week of violent protests

France’s minister for overseas territories left the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe Monday night at an impasse over ways to end more than a week of violent protests sparked by Covid-19 restrictions.

Before departing for more talks in neighbouring Martinique, Sebastien Lecornu told reporters that the Guadeloupe negotiations had been deadlocked over the “obvious and indispensable” demand that the various unions condemn the violence.

Discussions were not possible so long as the unions “do not want to condemn assassination attempts” against security forces, he said.

Unrest in the former colonial outpost began with a protest over compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations for health workers, but quickly ballooned into a broader revolt over living conditions, and spread to next door Martinique. 

Both islands are now under curfew. 

In the French overseas territories, each of which has close to 400,000 inhabitants, residents complain of greater poverty, higher costs for basic goods and poorer public services than on the mainland.

Lecornu said his talks with four union representatives in Guadeloupe were limited to the receipt of a list of demands.

Maite Hubert-M’Toumo, secretary general of Guadeloupe’s main trade union UGTG, said the requests include a suspension of the vaccine mandate for health professionals, no convictions for protesters over the violence and improvement of living conditions for Guadeloupean families. 

Lecornu, who laid responsibility for some of the issues at the feet of local elected officials, said he expects to make better headway in Martinique where the “republican prerequisite” for negotiations has already been met. 

– More autonomy? –

The explosion of unrest on the islands has put the fate of overseas territories on the agenda of the campaign heading into 2022 elections, with President Emmanuel Macron’s opponents accusing him of neglecting the former colonial outposts.

Ahead of his visit, Lecornu had floated the possibility of giving Guadeloupe, the more troubled of the two territories, more autonomy. 

His proposal drew fire from the opposition, with centre-right presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand accusing the government of being ready to let France “be broken up” and far-right leader Marine Le Pen accusing Lecornu of trying to “buy off” hardline pro-independence groups.

Lecornu’s remarks also received a lukewarm response from lawmakers in Guadeloupe, who said the immediate priority was tackling high levels of youth unemployment and other social problems.

On his arrival in Guadeloupe on Sunday, Lecornu vowed to stand firm on the obligation for health workers and first responders to be vaccinated against Covid by December 31 or face suspension without pay. But he insisted he was open to dialogue on other issues.

The vaccine mandate for health workers, which was enforced in September on the mainland, has met with greater resistance in Guadeloupe and Martinique, where vaccine hesitancy is high.

Protesters barricaded roads with burning tyres or taxis and hurled petrol bombs at the security forces in some of the worst unrest in the islands in years.

In Martinique, several businesses were looted and five police officers were injured by gunfire.

Calm had been largely restored by the weekend, however, with only minor skirmishes reported.

France lost most of its overseas possessions around 60 years ago, when its African colonies declared independence, a few years after French territories in Southeast Asia.

But Paris still retains control over 12 territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as in the Caribbean, that are home to a total of 2.6 million people.

While some, like Guadeloupe and Martinique, have the same status as regions on the mainland, others, such as French Polynesia, have already been granted autonomy.

The Pacific islands of New Caledonia are to vote next month in the third of three independence referendums.

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