Amid riots, France to consider autonomy for Guadeloupe

Amid riots, France to consider some autonomy for Guadeloupe

The offer drew sharp criticism from conservative and far right candidates for France's April presidential election

A woman walks past a barricade of burned cars and debris on a round-about blocking the traffic on highway N1 after violent demonstrations which broke out over Covid-19 protocols, in Petit-Bourg, Guadeloupe. Credit: Reuters photo

France's government is offering to discuss some autonomy for the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, which has been wracked by virus-related rioting and strikes that reflect long-running frustrations over inequality with the French mainland.

The overnight offer by the government minister for overseas affairs, Sebastien Lecornu, drew sharp criticism Saturday from conservative and far right candidates for France's April presidential election.

Guadeloupe uses the euro currency and has close political ties with the mainland. But high unemployment in Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique, high costs of living and lingering anger over historical abuses have prompted some local officials to demand change. Both Guadeloupe and Martinique are overseas departments of France.

“Some officials have asked the question of autonomy,” Lecornu said in a televised address Friday night to Guadeloupe residents. “According to them, Guadeloupe could manage itself better” than it is managed from Paris, and they notably want more autonomy to manage health-related issues locally, he said.

“The government is ready to talk about it.”

He denounced rioters whose pillaging is hurting local merchants and workers, and whose road barricades are preventing some patients from getting medical treatment and forced schools to close. But he also acknowledged “structural issues” behind the anger, and called for a “collective" response.

The recent tensions in Guadeloupe and Martinique started because of France's obligatory vaccinations for health care workers, and nationwide health pass to get into restaurants and other venues. To get the pass, people need to be vaccinated or show proof of a negative test or recent recovery from the virus.

But the protesters demands have spread to include higher salaries and jobless benefits and the hiring of more teachers.

A third of the Guadeloupe population lives below the poverty line, and unemployment rate is 17%. The cost of living, meanwhile, is high because the island relies heavily on imports from the mainland. Water supplies have been a major problem in recent years because of obsolete pipes.

Some residents denounce a relationship with Paris reminiscent of colonial times, and note an ongoing scandal over the use of a dangerous pesticide on islands in the Antilles for years after it was banned on the mainland.

The French government on Friday decided to delay mandatory vaccinations for health care workers in the region until December 31.

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