Friday, March 20, 2009

On the French Antillean situation

The 2009 general strikes in the French Antillean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe have deservedly gotten quite a lot of attention. Even though the immediate crisis has been resolved, they still brought into the open major issues like the huge economic disparities between the French Antilles and metropolitan France and the question of race, with relatively poor black majorities on those two islands positioned against wealthy white minorities on the islands and a French state represented mainly by whites.

David Beriss' intelligent 2004 study Black Skins, French Voices provides a very useful overview of the situation of Martiniquais and Guadeleoupéens. One of Beriss' informants reported a parent saying that, "Je suis français depuis 1635, bien avant les Niçois, les Savoyards, les Corses ou même les Strasbourgeois." In truth, the Antilles were integrated in France for a long time, with the 1848 revolution saw the French colonies granted representation in the national assembly, additionally abolishing slavery throughout the French Empire. Nearly a century later, the 1946 passage of the Law of Departmentalization saw Guadeloupe and Martinique, along with the South American territory of French Guiana and the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. "Guadeloupe and Martinique are, thus, integrated more or less completely in French political and administrative systems. Theoretically, the overseas departments are simply extensions of the métropole, represented like any other department in the National Assembly, with the same legal system, the same administrative statues, and no trade barriers. Instead of a colonial governor, the Paris government is represented on each island by a prefect, with authority similar to those in the departments of the métropole" (59).

Despite this, French Antilleans form a distinct and visibly non-metropolitan minority. This is controversial among many: When he mentioned this at a social club was hostile, others disagreeing "because Martinicans are already French citizens, they asserted, they cannot be immigrants in France. They are simply moving within their own country and should be referred to as internal migrants. The distinction was important to them--immigrants, one member heatedly claimed, are foreigners, usually Arabs, who 'bring their Ramadan and other crazy stuff,' Martinicans are more like Corsicans, cultural insiders with a few colorful particularities" (3-4). Still, Martiniquais and Guadeleoupéen difference is enduring. Take language. Jacques Leclerc points out that use of the Corsican language is bottoming out, with intergenerational transfer of the language among native Corsicans dropping sharply and immigrants not learning a largely irrelevant language, but argues that in Guadeloupe and Martinique Creole remains vibrant, coexisting alongside France thanks to each language's dominance in specific separate domains of life. More obviously, Martinique and Guadeloupe are islands located very far from the European mainland with social, economic, and political histories very different from that of Corsica. This is despite the fact that these islands were French long before Corsica.

The incorporation of Guadeloupe and Martinique into France allowed these two territories to benefit from the French welfare state. However, this incorporation created the rationale for migration from the islands to the French "mainland." The 1946 law did extend full political and civil rights to the residents of the new overseas departments, their incorporation into the French economy also carried significant economic costs. The act of bringing labour costs in line with those of the French mainland, along with growing African and Latin American competition in sugar production, saw the Antillean islands' sugar plantations become uneconomic. Public employment did grow significantly and income transfers made by the French state prop up the standard of living, but living standards are still significantly below the levels of metropolitan France and unemployment, stable in the 20-25% range, is among the worst in the European Union. Starting in the 1960s, large-scale emigration from the Antilles to France began on a remarkable scale, encouraged by the French government for political and economic rationales.

Metropolitan France is now home to one-quarter of those who were born in Martinique and Guadeloupe. The DOM-TOM (Departements d’Outre Mer et Territoires d’Outre-Mer) population is all French citizens, primarily from the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and Reunion in the Indian Ocean. The French government encouraged migration in the wake of a post-war labor shortage in Metropolitan France. Recruitment was also intended to continue the process of assimilation, especially in Guadeloupe and Martinique, to avert possible political unrest in response to unemployment and underemployment and also to circumvent U.S. economic incursions into the islands. During the sixties, these black migrants were seen as posing less of a threat than those from North Africa because of the “frenchness” of the Afro-Caribbeans. The government attempted to offset any xenophobia by promoting this migration as Caribbean nationals freely moving within French territory. Before this effort, there were approximately 40,000 DOM-TOMiens already residing in France employed as domestics, in maintenance, in civil service, and in industry. Aside from these occupations, the government recruited workers in the building trades, in customs, and conscripted recruits for the military. At the time, this migration was perceived by the government as permanent because family migration and unification were encouraged and subsidized. As French nationals, they are allowed to work in the public sector, unlike foreign immigrants. But, like foreign immigrants, they occupy low-level positions. The rate of employment is slightly lower than the national average but unemployment for the children of those originating from the DOM-Toms is double the national average. Discrimination is considered the primary reason that unemployment for children of migrants from the DOM-TOM parallels that of non-citizen immigrants. These Caribbean French nationals live largely in the Paris region —the center of state employment—in La Goutte d’Or, Seine-Saint-Denis (where the Paris riots of October 2005 began), or Belleville.

The sluggish economy during the seventies preceded a change in policy to replace foreign immigrants with nationals from the DOM-TOM. But, by the end of the seventies, there was less need for workers in the public sector and a rise in discrimination towards DOM-TOMiens. By the beginning of the Mitterrand government in 1982, policy focused on assimilating and integrating the DOM-TOM population that had already settled in France. And, by 1983, government policy began to focus on developing employment opportunities and increasing social benefits in the DOM-TOM in order to limit the in-migration of DOM-TOMiens to France.

Beriss notes that the immigration flow was relatively feminized, with a slight majority of immigrants from the French Antilles being women employed in low-skilled and low-status positions like nurses' aids and cleaners, but guaranteed the job security by virtue of their French citizenship that immigrants from outside France lacked (64). The scale of this immigration relative to the islands' population was huge: "The total immigrant population in France in 1999, excluding Antilleans, was 4.3 million, or about 7.4% of the total population. The total DOM-TOM population residing in metropolitan France in 1990, counting people born in or descended from people in all of France's overseas departments and territories [. . .] was 526,512. This constitutes a substantial population of color but, as I have noted, is not counted as part of the immigrant population in France" (12). In 1999, roughly 337 thousand people of French Antillean origin lived in metropolitan France (xiii), compared to the 381 thousand people living in Martinique and the 422 thousand people living in Guadeloupe. The emigration from the French Antilles to France may well compare to the Puerto Rican emigration to the United states in its intensity.

During the economic boom of the trente glorieuses, migrants could count on employment. But now, with the post-oil shock deceleration in growth, the rise oflong-term unemployment and youth unemployment, and now this recent recession, emigration to metropolitan France is no longer as attractive as it once was. To a non-trivial extent, French--and Eurozone--economic policy has created in Martinique and Guadeloupe, on the transatlantic fringes of political Europe, a situation where the people of the French Antilles are faced with a failed model of economic development.

La Guadeloupe est une île isolée, excentrée dans un coin du monde. C'est une petite tête d'épingle française dans l'immensité du continent américain ! Ainsi, nous n'avons pas de continuité territoriale. Si un Lyonnais est au chômage, il peut aller voir du côté de Paris s'il n'y a pas du travail. Ici on fait comment ? On va à Desirade, la petite île d'à côté ? Non, bien sûr. Il n'y a rien. Nous devons donc accepter le défi de construire notre propre modèle de développement.

What this model of development could be, with such a relatively isolated and small territory and a population deprived of the chance to find work at home and in the metropole, is anyone's guess. Certainly the economic crisis won't make things easier.