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Guadeloupe: An island between paradise and desperation pt 1

PICTURE PERFECT: Guadeloupe beach Grande Terre

ARRIVING AT Point-à-Pitre airport, Pôle Caraïbe, I am somewhat surprised, even slightly disturbed by the signs indicating which queue to join: the European Union one is for Guadeloupians, Martinicans, Guyanese and all other European nationals whilst the other is for the rest of the world including the neighbouring islands of the Small Antilles. One suspects that there is some kind of anomaly or anachronism.

As soon as you leave the airport, you might be excused for thinking you are in metropolitan France: the cars have French number plates, the European flag above the F. The architecture of the terminal and other buildings are typically Gallic, as if all materials had been directly imported from France. The traffic signs on the roads are identical and it is surprising to have the use of a network of free highways on such a small island. Only the coconut trees, beaches and sugarcane fields remind travellers that they are indeed 6731 km from Paris.

If you take the time to scratch below the surface of this Caribbean postcard, you come to realise that the Butterfly Island is far from this seemingly rosy picture. The whole socio-economic system being in fact under perfusion, with 40% of the active population composed of civil servants of which the senior managers come mostly from France.

The latter benefit from bonuses and other advantages to compensate both for their absence from the motherland and the island's high cost of living; native civil servants also benefit from salary perks and bonuses. However some of the native islanders denounce the presence of French bureaucrats, which contributes to inflation, increasing the cost of living.

Guadeloupe Le Moule Town hall

It should be noted that the Guadeloupe Region operates on exactly the same territory as the Guadeloupe Department ever since the prosperous islands of Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy became autonomous and thus detached from the Guadeloupe region. So why maintain two parallel administrations? A good question.

Could it be to maintain job security and ensure the leaders of the French Republic get re-elected? The Guadeloupians rejected a new single assembly by more than 60% in a 2003 referendum, preferring to preserve the status quo and rule out further reforms. Since then, the aberration of a double administration has been preserved.

Let us not forget that the election of former President François Hollande in 2012 benefited in no small part from overseas French territories, Guadeloupe having supported the socialist candidate with 72% of the vote. President Macron and his new party would come up against great opposition here if they plan to trim expenditures; only 1 out of 4 MPs in Guadeloupe belong to la République en Marche.

Another 40% of this small friendly nation are unemployed but enjoy a considerable number of welfare benefits that made Guadeloupe the envy of Mayotte (the secessionist Indian Ocean island of Comoros with the highest birth rate in France) which wanted to become as “rich” as Guadeloupe. In 2011, it finally obtained the same French departmental status as Guadeloupe. In these former colonies, even if a certain lack of love for France is palpable, people are nevertheless dependent upon the French welfare state. People even refer to "zipper benefits” for girls getting themselves pregnant, a practical way to become eligible for council housing.

Guadeloupe Pointe-a-pitre 1967 massacre Memorial

A dramatic reality

There is a dramatic reality behind all this: the Guadeloupians emigrate more and more to the metropolis: to France, Canada, the United States, England and the United Arab Emirates in search of employment. For example, in the centre of the beautiful little town of Le Moule, in Grande-Terre, many beautiful wooden houses have been left abandoned because their inhabitants have moved away to settle in France and elsewhere.

On the other hand, French metropolitans are increasingly arriving to invest in real estate and tourism, an influx of such magnitude that the writer Martiniquais Patrick Chamoiseau sees in this phenomenon a “genocide by substitution": France thus imports cheap labour while exporting its civil servants and pensioners. Some Antilleans fear that the island’s Negritude is threatened, despite the fact that more and more Haitians and Dominican Republic nationals, in search of prosperity and security, are illegally taking up residence in the French West Indies.

If we take the time to listen to Guadeloupians, we come to realize that as a nation they feel despised by the French. The wounds in their collective memory are profound: slavery, all hopes of the French Revolution dashed - Guadeloupians were freed in 1794 but re-enslaved in 1805 on Napoleon’s orders. There are the thousands of Indian families who came to work in sugar cane fields after the definitive abolition of slavery in 1848 who even now barely mix with the rest of the population.

Let’s not forget the conscription under the Third Republic of young men to be used as cannon fodder, the bloody repression by police during the strikes at Pointe-à-Pitre in 1967 resulting in a toll of 100 deaths, and last but not least the "chlordecone" scandal, a pesticide banned in France and throughout the European Union but which was given an administrative exemption for banana growing in the French West Indies.

Astonishingly, Creole, very much a living language, still has no official status. Some Guadeloupians feel daunted by the complexity of the long administrative forms drawn up in Parisian offices and this may well serve to reinforce the impression that they are still colonized or acculturated.

Read part two of Guadeloupe: An island between paradise and desperation tomorrow (Nov 4) at 7pm.

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