PARIS — France’s minister for overseas territories will hold crisis talks on its Caribbean islands starting today, an official said, as the government looks to defuse tensions after more than a week of unrest stemming from its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic there.
“I don’t think we will return to Paris necessarily having resolved the whole crisis, but if we take things bit by bit and methodically, it will calm things and open a constructive dialogue with all the actors,” an official close to Minister Sebastian Lecornu told Reuters before the delegation arrives in Guadeloupe later today.
A plan for compulsory vaccination for health workers stoked a sentiment among the majority Black population of Guadeloupe and Martinique of being excluded and marginalized from the mainland, although the same measure had already been introduced on the mainland.
The issue sparked protests and fanned longstanding grievances over living standards and the relationship with Paris. Protesters have insisted they should be allowed to make their own choices about health treatment.
On Friday, the government postponed the requirement that public sector health workers on the two islands be vaccinated, but local officials have demanded more dialogue with the central government.
In Guadeloupe, where protests began more than a week ago, there is a historic mistrust of the government’s handling of health crises after many people were systematically exposed to toxic pesticides used in banana plantations in the 1970s.
However, unions in Martinique signed on Saturday an accord with local officials and the state to begin talks on key issues ranging from health, energy prices, youth and transport.
Curfews have helped restore some calm in recent days after violence that saw stores looted and police shot at.
Lecornu said on Saturday that the government was ready to discuss autonomy for the islands.
“It’s not a dirty word in the Republic. (French) Polynesia is autonomous today with its own laws, so the minister is ready to open the debate,” the official said.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Frances Kerry)
BASSE-TERRE — French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said today that several members of the police force had been injured as a result of civil unrest during protests against COVID-19 protocols on France’s Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
“In Guadeloupe and Martinique, our security forces as well as journalists have been the target of attacks and have been fired upon. Several members of the police forces have been injured,” Darmanin on his Twitter account said.
Authorities on the Caribbean island of Martinique ordered a curfew on Thursday after protesters looted shops and set up burning barricades as demonstrations against COVID-19 protocols spread across France’s overseas’ territories.
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Alison Williams)
FORT-DE-FRANCE — Gunshots were fired overnight at police in Martinique for the second night running, French media reported today, in a sign that unrest triggered by COVID-19 restrictions that has also rocked the nearby island of Guadeloupe.
BFM TV, quoting police forces, reported that shootings lasted for several hours and noted the situation was still “very tense” even though trade unions had ordered the removal of barricades protesters had set up.
Gunfire has also targeted police over the past few days in Guadeloupe, where a general strike entered a second week on Monday, and many stores remained shuttered after night-time looting amid protests over the COVID-19 restrictions.
People in Guadeloupe and Martinique have been especially incensed by a requirement, also in force in mainland France, for all healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Compulsory vaccination has touched a nerve in a population that is descended from slaves who worked on French sugar plantations. During the 20th century, many people on Guadeloupe were also systematically exposed to toxic pesticides used in banana plantations.
A general strike had also begun in Martinique on Monday to demand an end to the mandatory vaccination of health workers and for action to tackle high fuel prices.
The Caribbean has been hit in recent weeks by a new wave of coronavirus infections that is causing lockdowns and flight cancellations and overwhelming hospitals, just as tourism was beginning to show signs of recovery.
(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta)
BASSE-TERRE —Protesters in French overseas territories in the Caribbean opposing measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 clashed again with security forces on Tuesday as the Paris government vowed to restore order. French authorities have extended the curfew imposed on the island of Guadeloupe until Sunday.
Hardline opponents of measures that include compulsory vaccination for health workers on Guadeloupe manned barricades of burning tires while on Martinique police were targeted by gunfire.
Anger over the COVID measures imposed by Paris has fanned longstanding grievances in the territories that are popular with moneyed tourists but where poverty levels are far higher than in mainland France.
As a result residents have long felt marginalized by the central government.
Vaccination rates in the territories trail those on the mainland with less than half the population jabbed against COVID on Guadeloupe.
The protests mark a test for the government of President Emmanuel Macron who has made much of the global footprint given to France by overseas territories that span the Caribbean to the Pacific via the Indian Ocean.
“The situation is still very difficult” in Guadeloupe after over a week of unrest, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told France Inter radio. “What is clear is that restoring public order is the precondition for any talks.”
General strike under way in Martinique
Security forces and firefighters came under fire in Martinique where a general strike got underway on Monday, a week after a similar shutdown began in Guadeloupe, police said. There were no casualties.
Petrol bombs were meanwhile hurled at police in Basse-Terre, the main city in Guadeloupe where at least 90 people have been arrested in recent days, prosecutors said.
Barricades made of taxis or tires have now also been set up on main highways in Martinique and they remain in place in Guadeloupe where a meeting Monday chaired by Prime Minister Jean Castex failed to dampen anger.
“Of course we continue the mobilisation. We did not expect much from Castex and the Macron government, so we are not disappointed,” said Hilaire Luce, a demonstrator manning a barricade near Le Gosier on Guadeloupe, accusing the government of showing “contempt”.
Macron on Monday said that the crisis was “explosive” but vowed that the government would “not give in to lies, distorting of information and the exploitation by some people of this situation”.
The unrest comes at a sensitive moment in France’s governance of its overseas territories, ahead of a third and final referendum later this month offering people in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia a vote on independence.
Pro-independence forces have vowed to boycott the December 12 vote, setting up possible tensions in the aftermath of the ballot.
POINTE-A-PITRE — French President Emmanuel Macron said violence in Guadeloupe over COVID-19 restrictions had created a “very explosive” situation, as a general strike entered a second week on Monday and many stores remained shuttered after nighttime looting.
Hours before Macron’s prime minister and lawmakers from the Caribbean archipelago were to hold crisis talks in Paris, there were signs of protests spreading to Martinique, another French overseas territory 190 km (120 miles) south of Guadeloupe.
Compulsory vaccination has touched a nerve in a population that is descended from slaves who worked on French sugar plantations and that during the 20th century was systematically exposed to toxic pesticides used in banana plantations.
“We are descendants of slaves, and for us, control over our bodies is really important,” said Pamela Obertan, 40, a political scientist in Guadeloupe who helped organize protests against vaccine requirements. “The government wants to impose a medical experiment. We are still medical experiments.”
Agriculture workers in Guadeloupe and Martinique were for decades exposed to a chemical pesticide called chlordecone. Macron has called it an “environmental scandal”, French media reported in 2018.
The toxic exposure has since then been linked to unusually high rates of prostate cancer on both islands.
Guadeloupe health workers had since July been protesting coronavirus vaccines mandates and writing letters to government officials without getting a response, said Obertan. By November 15, some could no longer work because they had refused the vaccine.
Guadeloupe’s main city, Pointe-a-Pitre, was quiet on Monday, with burned out cars and debris still littering streets. Some shops remained shuttered, and schools closed due to the unrest.
Obertan said she and others had led peaceful protests, and did not support the acts of violence that had taken place.
France has deployed 200 extra police officers, including elite police commandos, to Guadeloupe to quell the unrest.
“We must explain, explain, explain and convince, convince, convince, because one must not play around with the peoples’ health,” Macron told reporters in northern France.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Monday described the situation in Guadeloupe as “worrying” and called for calm while also urging solidarity with the island’s people.
Local police have arrested several dozen people and food stores and pharmacies have been looted. French media reported on Sunday that rioters had broken into an arms depot in Pointe-a-Pitre and taken rifles.
“We just don’t know how far this will still go,” the mayor of Pointe-a-Pitre told France Info radio. He said there were “big worries” on the island now because rioters had guns.
In Martinique, roads around some of the main commercial and industrial zones were blocked by trucks at sunrise as unionized workers responded to a strike call, local media reported.
Reporting by Ricardo Arduengo in Point-a-Pitre, Kate Chappell in Kingston, Tassilo Hummel and Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Christian Lowe, Giles Elgood and Toby Chopra
LE GOSIER — Residents in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, an overseas territory of France, expressed dismay today after protests against COVID-19 restrictions erupted into rioting and looting for the third day in a row, prompting French authorities to send in police special forces.
Road blockades by protesters made traveling across the island nearly impossible today. Firefighters reported 48 interventions overnight into Sunday morning. The island of 400,000 people has one of the lowest vaccination rates in France at 33 percent, compared with 75 percent across the country.
In Pointe-a-Pitre, the island’s largest urban area, clashes left three people injured, including a 80-year-old woman hit by a bullet while on her balcony. A firefighter and a police officer were also injured and several shops were looted there and in other towns. A police station in Morne-à-l’Eau was set on fire.
Guadeloupe Prefect Alexandre Rochatte, who has imposed a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m., said Sunday that 38 people were arrested overnight and denounced the “organized groups now seeking to sow chaos.”
Emilie Guisbert, a 47-year-old Pointe-a-Pitre resident, was sleeping in her home in the building owned by her father when it was set on fire on Thursday evening. Her friend woke her up and she just had time to dress and run out with her dogs, she told The Associated Press.
“I lost everything. Everything. I went out with my cellphone and what I was wearing,” she said, adding that personal belongings of her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were in the house. “It’s 100 years of memory of a Guadeloupean family that went up in smoke in 15 minutes.”
She said she did not receive help from authorities yet. “We are completely left to ourselves. I don’t know who is clearing (the house). Is it us, the insurance, the city hall?”
The protests were called for by unions to denounce France’s COVID-19 health pass, which is required to access restaurants and cafes, cultural venues, sport arenas and long-distance travel. Demonstrators were also protesting France’s mandatory vaccinations for health care workers. In recent days, they broadened their demands to include a general salary increase, higher unemployment benefits and the hiring of more teachers.
Gregory Agapé, 30, who also lives in a Pointe-à-Pitre neighborhood where violence has repeatedly taken place, said he cannot sleep at night.
“We are always upset by the noises, bangs, all the bustle around so nights are very complicated, very short,” he said.
Agapé said he has contradictory thoughts about the COVID-19 protest movement. “I’m well aware of economic, social, cultural difficulties … but its quite complicated, because I think (the protests) are making Guadeloupean society even more fragile.”
Jacques Bertili, a 49-year-old Le Gosier resident, said “I’m not against nor for the vaccine. But what makes me upset is looting. Because we need to work.”
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin denounced the violence as “unacceptable” in an interview today with Le Parisien newspaper. He said 50 officers from police special forces were arriving Sunday in Guadeloupe, in addition to 200 other police sent earlier.
Darmanin said following an emergency meeting Saturday in Paris that “some shots have been fired against police officers” in Guadeloupe. He also said road blockades created a “very difficult situation for a few hours” during which patients and supplies couldn’t reach hospitals.
Rochatte said some electrical facilities near dams have been damaged, which has caused some power outages, and urged people not to go near downed electrical cables.
Protesters have torched cars and erected makeshift barricades across streets. Video on social media showed police charging protesting firefighters who used fire hoses to try and repel the officers, and plumes of smoke rising over neighborhoods.
Earlier in the day, the Paris government said it would send 200 police to Guadeloupe to help quell the unrest.
“Some people say to us, ‘you’re paralyzing Guadeloupe,” one protester told Canal 10 television. “I say to them, ‘my dear brothers and sisters, for a year and a half the government has (…) imposed restrictions on our daily lives.”
Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean advised cruise passengers aboard its Oasis of the Seas to avoid the French side of Saint Martin in the second week of this month due to tensions over COVID-19 protocols there, Cruise Hive reported.
BASSE-TERRE — The results of a French parliamentary commission of inquiry into the use of the carcinogenic pesticide chlordecone in the Guadeloupe and Martinique show that the government “consistently failed” to respond to environmental and health warnings over two decades.
“First we were enslaved. Then we were poisoned.” That’s how many on Martinique see the history of their French Caribbean island that, to tourists, means sun, rum, and palm-fringed beaches.
Slavery was abolished in 1848. But today the islanders are victims again — of a toxic pesticide called chlordecone that’s poisoned the soil and water and been linked to unusually high rates of prostate cancer.
“They never told us it was dangerous,” Ambroise Bertin said. “So people were working, because they wanted the money. We didn’t have any instructions about what was, and wasn’t, good. That’s why a lot of people are poisoned.”
He’s talking about chlordecone, a chemical in the form of a white powder that plantation workers were told to put under banana trees, to protect them from insects.
Ambroise did that job for many years. Later, he got prostate cancer, a disease that is commoner on Martinique and its sister French island of Guadeloupe than anywhere else in the world. And scientists blame chlordecone, a persistent organic pollutant related to DDT. It was authorised for use in the French West Indies long after its harmful effects became widely known.
“They used to tell us: don’t eat or drink anything while you’re putting it down,” Ambroise, now 70, remembers. But that’s the only clue he and other workers in Martinique’s banana plantations in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s had about the possible danger. Few if any were told to wear gloves or masks. Now, many have suffered cancer and other illnesses.
Chlordecone is an endocrine disrupter, meaning it can affect hormonal systems.
One of the world’s leading experts on the chemical, Prof Luc Multigner, of Rennes University in France, says epidemiological studies have shown increased risk of premature births and increased risk of adverse brain development in children at the exposure levels people in Martinique and Guadeloupe face through contaminated food consumption.
He also says: “There is enough toxicological and experimental data to conclude that chlordecone is carcinogenic.”
Following a detailed study Prof Multigner and colleagues conducted on Guadeloupe in 2010, he estimates chlordecone is responsible for about 5-10% of prostate cancer cases in the French West Indies, amounting to between 50 to 100 new cases per year, out of a population of 800,000.
Chlordecone stays in the soil for decades, possibly for centuries. So more than 20 years after the chemical ceased to be used, much of the land on Martinique cannot be used for growing vegetables, even though bananas and other fruit on trees are safe.
Rivers and coastal waters are also contaminated, which means many fishermen cannot work. And 92% of Martinicans have traces of chlordecone in their blood.