French Guiana: General Strike against Austerity!
What started off as local demonstrations and strikes organized by the “Collective of 500 Brothers,” a coalition of organizers created earlier this year as a reaction to the high levels of crime and worsening economic conditions, has turned into a nationwide General Strike. The strike includes 37 unions and community groups, under the umbrella of the Guianese Workers’ Union (UGT). On March 27, the UGT unanimously voted for an “unlimited general strike” and a “dead day” as a show of force prior to the arrival of the negotiators from the French government.
The movement has been able to effectively shut down the entire country since Monday, March 27th. Barricades currently block the main roads into neighbouring Brazil and Suriname while the airport, schools, Guiana Space Centre, and roadways into the capital remain closed. Tuesday’s “Dead Day” by some estimates put the number of demonstrators close to 40,000, for perspective the capital city has 57,000 residents.
The quick response from political figures in France to the general strike shows the power of working people. General strikes pose the question of which class rules society. If everything is brought to a halt when working people withhold their labor, then the question as to who makes society run is put on the table.
La Guyane debout chantent les manifestants ! Ils sont des milliers dans les rue de Cayenne pic.twitter.com/yO4FILw9Vi
— Gaële Joly (@joelgaly) March 28, 2017
French Guiana: Abandoned by France
Originally colonized by France in 1504, French Guiana (pop: 250,000) is located in the northern coast of South America between Suriname and Brazil. Politically, French Guiana is a “department” of France which means all of its inhabitants are French citizens and, in theory, have the same rights and guarantees as their counterparts in the mainland. However, in practice a different story is told as French Guiana’s Senator, Antoine Karam, relates:
“….nearly 30% of the population does not have access to drinking water and electrical energy while we have a space station….”
The disparities between France and French-Guiana are not accidental. Through centuries of French colonial rule, the indigenous community and descendants of slaves were brutally exploited and oppressed to build French wealth. This already terrible situation has exacerbated in the last few decades since the population of French Guiana has doubled since 1990 while levels of investment for social services have stagnated and, in several cases, health care has actually declined. In Kourou, the main hospital, originally built for French astronauts, is being privatized while tens of thousands are without access to health care. As one nurse explains, “Some strokes are not treated”. Hospital workers who started their strike ahead of Monday’s General Strike recognize the dead-end of privatization as a health care strategy:
“….the fee-for-service principle is insane here…Medical practices, poverty and low turnover of hospital beds make this system based on profitability incompatible with the realities of the field.”
The scars of over 30 years of austerity and disengagement by the French state are plain to see in French Guiana. Unemployment is at 22% (50% for youth), the murder rate is 13 times higher than in France, food is 45% more expensive, and education is so undeveloped that only 13% of youth have a High School diploma and with over 10,000 children out of school. French Guiana like many of its neighbours in the region is a powder keg which has finally exploded.
The Cayenne Masses Begin
In the classic, The Black Jacobins, CLR James demonstrated through the history of the Haitian Revolution that the revolutionary process is not restricted by national borders. Both the slaves fighting for freedom in Haiti and the Paris masses fighting appalling living conditions made common cause against the single source of their oppression: the French aristocracy and the merchant class which exploited on both sides of the Atlantic.
As James explains,
“What has all this to do with the slaves? Everything. The workers and peasants of France could not have been expected to take any interest in the colonial question in normal times, any more than one can expect similar interest from British or French workers today. But now they were roused. They were striking at royalty, tyranny, reaction and oppression of all types, and with these they included slavery. The prejudice of race is superficially the most irrational of all prejudices, and by a perfectly comprehensible reaction the Paris workers, from indifference in 1789, had come by this time to detest no section of the aristocracy so much as those whom they called ‘the aristocrats of the skin (slave owners)’.”
A struggle which started in Haiti spread to a France in crisis which resulted in the Paris masses and the Haitian slaves declaring war on their common enemies–the “aristocrats of the skin”.
The Sarkozy government, which provoked mass demonstrations and strikes against pension reforms in 2010, was the same government which provoked General Strikes in the French departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and almost in French Guiana and La Reunion Island in 2009. Hollande’s labour reforms provoked mass resistance in France a year ago and that government’s indifference to French Guiana has led to the current revolt today.
A victorious movement against austerity in the departments has the potential to strengthen movements in the mainland, and any successful movement in the mainland will bolster those in the departments. If the French Left and labour unions elevate the demands of their counterparts in French Guiana it could have a massive effect on the struggles in both countries.
And The Paris Masses Complete?
The wholesale abandonment of the French departments by the Sarkozy and Hollande governments has resulted in a situation where faith in French mainstream political parties has rightfully diminished. The response by most of the French political establishment has so far been one full of indifference and gaffes with one notable exception: The proto-fascist National Front.
Marine Le Pen has acknowledged that the territory receives a “cruel minimum service”, which is true, but she places the blame on immigrants. Le Pen offers the solution of removing the law which grants citizenship to anyone born on French soil. To her, the enemy is the 35% of French Guiana’s population which are of foreign nationality, and not the wealthy Béké minority (descendants of French settlers), nor the colonial relationship with France, which has resulted in extremely uneven development in the department. Her promise is that by throwing out immigrants and restricting citizenship in the departments, the inadequate financial support French Guiana receives will alleviate the current crisis.
In La Reunion Island, Le Pen is polling at 25% up from 5% and while French Guiana doesn’t reflect this sentiment in December Le Pen was met with protests during a visit. The danger, however, is that come election day the National Front may capture the anti-austerity content of the revolt in French Guiana and repackage it to reinforce their racist and anti-immigrant agenda in mainland France.
Just as in the case of Brexit and Trump where by acknowledging popular discontent while their opponents carried on as usual, the ultra-right was able to advance their political agendas. Marine Le Pen’s acknowledgement of the crisis in the departments is no different.
The risk now is that the space Hollande and Sarkozy occupied could be seized upon by the National Front and Marine Le Pen whose acknowledgment of a crisis, no matter how opportunistic, resonates more than the current government’s denial of one.
The French Guiana general strike also shows the possibility of bridging the divide in France between the labor movement and sectors immigrant population who are racially segregated into the suburbs of Paris and are subjected to the worst economic austerity and social oppression, especially in the form of police brutality. The recent struggles for #justicefortheo regarding the young Black man who was raped by police in France and the current struggle for justice for Liu Shao, a Chinese man murdered by police in his home, highlights the racism which underpins French capitalism and imperialism. The General Strike in French Guiana is a struggle against this racism as well and in the same way it can also inspire anti-racist struggles there and more crucially provide a link between the two struggles.
Underdevelopment and Solidarity
French Guiana’s current situation is a result of capitalism’s tendency to develop only the resources and infrastructure required to generate profit while leaving everything else underdeveloped and lacking. In the case of small countries, departments, or colonies this can produce extreme examples which highlight the anarchy of the capitalist system itself. Only through capitalist planning, which puts profits ahead of human need, can you have an advanced space center in a colony while water, electricity, education, and healthcare barely exist for the masses.
Walter Rodney, a Guyanese revolutionary explained that:
“…an indispensable component of modern underdevelopment is that it expresses a particular relationship of exploitation: namely, the exploitation of one country by another. All of the countries named as ‘underdeveloped’ in the world are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now preoccupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist.” How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Walter Rodney 1973
Owing to its small geographical size, population, and extreme underdevelopment there is no situation where, under the terms of capitalism, French Guiana will ever be able to develop and escape its torturous existence, which is similar to almost all of its regional neighbours. Only under socialism, where borders are just “lines on a map” and planning for human need dictates development, will the region as a whole escape the anarchy of capitalism which divided it into so many territories.
The French Caribbean General Strike in 2009 where a General Strike against “super exploitation” spilled over national borders from Guadeloupe to Martinique, and almost to French Guiana and La Reunion Island. This showed how, through struggle, the divisions of capitalism can be bridged and how any struggle against poverty has the potential to be generalized into a struggle against all poverty in the region.
History has shown us the great potential of what happens when the French masses make common cause with their Caribbean counterparts, at a time when the people of the Caribbean, Latin America and EU are fighting for an alternative to austerity and division, the potential for solidarity is higher now more than ever. The global crisis of capitalism is causing the imposition of neoliberal austerity policies worldwide. The French Guiana masses are leading the way in showing how to fight these attacks.
On Tuesday the headline of the French Guiana newspaper read “20,000 Freres” showing how the Collective of 500 Brothers’s movement had generalized across all of society. What’s needed now is for those in France, its territories as well as non-French speaking countries in the Caribbean and Latin America to show solidarity and make this “2,000,000 Freres”.