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Guadeloupe: An island between paradise and desperation pt 2

VIEWS: Guadeloupe Basse Terre

THERE ARE no subtitles in the news for those who do not understand French very well; it really seems that the Republic prefers to turn a blind eye in the name of the sacrosanct “one nation one state,” whilst maintaining that the EU promotes diversity and accessibility for all.

"But you still have such beautiful houses and excellent roads thanks to all these French subsidies!” I had the impudence to declare one day. Obviously, this is the sort of scathing and paternalistic little phrase that enrages Guadeloupians. These subsidies in fact serve to keep the island in a state of dependence and passivity. Unlike Dominica and Saint Lucia, which are much poorer, Guadeloupe does little to adapt to the economic climate or its tropical environment.

Market gardening is not encouraged and construction is not adapted to withstand cyclones. After all, Paris is there to pay for the broken pots and Guadeloupe does not have the right to self-determination. The economy is for the most part turned away from the Caribbean and America; being a European Union territory, it is far simpler to import products from France than neighbouring islands.

Even with regard to tourism, it was not until 2016 that Norwegian, the low-cost Scandinavian airline (registered in Ireland), set up low cost direct flights connecting Point-à-Pitre to New York, Baltimore and Boston, breaking up the quasi-monopoly of Air France and Air Caraïbes. These new flight connections will make the United States more popular than Paris as a vacation spot and in the long run could Americanise the entire population of the French West Indies since they benefit from a US visa waiver.

A Booming Art Scene

As for the art scene, the situation is delicate. An artist who wishes to be professional is up against an obstacle course, because on this island, popular art and culture are going strong. For example, the artistic association L'Artocarpe - having enjoyed international success in the city of Le Moule by creating numerous residences in a three-storey house owned by its founder, the artist Joëlle Ferly had to comply with European standards on disabled access. But how could Ferly finance the construction of an elevator in her house? She had no choice but to stop all her public-oriented activities and relocate to New York, until she finds a solution.

ART: 'Blood' by Thierry Alet

There is also the dynamic Thierry Alet, an artist who has worked on the collective memory of the West Indies with his famous sculpture "Blood", a work commissioned by the Clément Foundation, in other words financed by the great Béké magnate of Martinique, Bernard Hayot – a man in control of large-scale distribution, car dealerships, agri-foodstuffs and a share of imports into the French West Indies.

After "Blood", Alet produced another interesting work entitled “la voleuse d’enfants” (“The Child Thief”) - a work made up of small pieces of wood painted in different colours. It can be viewed in the impressive Memorial ACTe, in Point-à-Pitre.

The architecture of this superb museum dedicated to slavery and the history of Afro-American peoples is uncannily similar to the Museum of the Mediterranean in Marseille. But we are assured that the firm of architects who built it is fully Guadeloupian.

This pharaonic museum with an uninterrupted view of the mountainous island of Basse-Terre cost a staggering 83 million Euros, a colossal fortune for a country in the midst of a full economic slump. The most surprising thing is that this site was built in a dodgy neighbourhood in the depraved and dangerous Point-à-Pitre. To get there, you must pluck up the courage to cross a neighbourhood filled with Dominican prostitutes and drug traffickers.

It is estimated that it would take at least 1,500 visitors a day for the ACTe Memorial to become profitable, yet when I was there in April 2016, I was the only tourist in the huge lobby where four receptionists welcomed me with big smiles. Some Guadeloupian journalists predicted that there would be an average of 150 daily visits.

For the inauguration of this spectacular museum on May 10th, 2015, the Region of Guadeloupe took great care to conceal all these depressing realities from François Hollande and the other invited heads of state from Africa and the Americas.

An outpost of the failure of the French Republic?

But let's look on the bright side: the struggles and successes of the above mentioned artistic entrepreneurs trained in North America and Britain give reason for hope (Ferly lived 15 years in London, Alet is still based in New York). More and more French Caribbean people think that a viable prosperity for Guadeloupe could come about with a better integration of the island with the rest of the Caribbean world within a North American context.

PICTURED: Guadeloupe Memorial ACTe

A decentralisation or even a withdrawal of the French state would undoubtedly be desirable in the long term in order to emancipate citizens by allowing them to fully engage. Otherwise Guadeloupe could go the way of the many outposts of the French Republic that risk going bust. France can best achieve financial security through supporting private entrepreneurship and undertaking an in-depth reform of its overseas departments, communities, regions and territories.

During the 45 day strike in 2009 against the high cost of living that has paralysed the island, protestors demanded a greater autonomy for Guadeloupe. This event was perceived by many Guadeloupians as a sign of hope because they found that they could be economically self-sufficient without a reliance on goods and products imported from France.

It remains to be hoped that common sense will prevail in Paris and Basse-Terre (the capital of the department of Guadeloupe) and that a significant degree of autonomy will be granted to this Caribbean island without undue interference from the French administration. But, as a long-term French resident of the island confided in me, it is more than likely that the Guadeloupians will reject any change to the status quo, as they did in the 2003 referendum, unlike in Martinique.

Guadeloupians would certainly wish for independence or autonomy in theory, but many are afraid of the unknown. "We are no longer in the nineteenth century. Paris is no longer the real problem and I even believe that France would be ready to cede a large autonomy to the island as it did, notwithstanding many hiccups along the way, in New Caledonia and Polynesia. It seems however that there are very powerful lobbies in the French West Indies that would obstruct change in Guadeloupe in order to preserve selfish economic interests.

“This unfortunately strains the financial resources of the ‘Papillon Island’ and those of the indebted French state. Real reforms from President Macron urgently need to be put in place giving full political and fiscal devolution to the overseas territories.”

I left Guadeloupe with a sense of hope that Guadeloupians will begin to take responsibility for their destiny and that this process might be accelerated by the new government in France; Emmanuel Macron and Édouard Philippe declare themselves Girondin, men who (not only for overseas but also for French regions) favour a light form of devolution.

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