LE GOSIER, Guadeloupe (AP) – The French government is proposing to discuss some autonomy for the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, which has been hit by virus-related riots and strikes that reflect long-standing frustration over inequality with the French mainland.
Foreign Minister Sébastien Lecorne’s overnight proposal drew sharp criticism on Saturday from conservative and far-right candidates in France’s presidential elections in April.
Guadeloupe uses the euro and has close political ties to the mainland. But high unemployment in Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique, high cost of living, and ongoing anger over historical abuses have prompted some local officials to press for change. Both Guadeloupe and Martinique are overseas departments of France.
“Some officials have asked about autonomy,” Lecorne said in a televised address Friday evening to the residents of Guadeloupe. “They said Guadeloupe could manage itself better” than it is from Paris, and they, in particular, want more autonomy to deal with health issues at the local level, he said. “The government is ready to talk about it.”
He denounced rioters, whose looting harms local traders and workers, whose roadblocks prevent some patients from receiving medical attention, and forces schools to close. But he also acknowledged the “structural problems” behind the anger and called for a “collective” response.
Recent tensions in Guadeloupe and Martinique have erupted over compulsory vaccinations in France for healthcare workers and a nationwide pass to visit restaurants and other establishments. To qualify for a pass, people must be vaccinated or show evidence of a negative test result or recent recovery from the virus.
Most of Guadeloupe’s medical staff – 85% – received at least one dose. But coverage to the broader population remains limited, at 46% of the adult population, compared with 89% on the mainland.
Anger and resentment over the government’s handling of a toxic pesticide called Chlordecone, which has been used for years in the French Caribbean after it was banned on the mainland and in the United States, is fueling distrust of the government’s COVID-19 vaccination policy and the central government in general. … …
Chlordecone, used mainly in banana fields, is responsible for record levels of breast and prostate cancer in the region, and experts say it will remain in contaminated soils for the next 700 years.
Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines spread through WhatsApp or Telegram groups has also sparked skepticism in Guadeloupe and Martinique.
In the four months since the announcement of the mandatory vaccine for healthcare workers and the admission rules, the number of demonstrations has increased by several unions. They want the government to abandon these measures, or at least adapt them for overseas territories.
Feeling unheard, unions have declared an open-ended general strike on November 15, the deadline for medical workers to be vaccinated or at risk of being suspended from work without pay. Anger escalated to riot 10 days ago, and clashes in Pointe-a-Pitre, the island’s largest urban area, injured three people, including an 80-year-old woman who was shot by a bullet while on a balcony.
The French government on Friday decided to postpone the mandatory vaccination of health workers in the region until December 31.
Meanwhile, protesters’ demands expanded, including higher wages and unemployment benefits, as well as hiring more teachers.
A third of Guadeloupe’s population lives below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is 17%. Meanwhile, the cost of living is higher than on the mainland because the island is heavily dependent on imports and wages are lower.
Water supply has been a major problem in recent years due to outdated pipes, which left some residents without water for hours or even weeks.
Angela Charlton reported from Paris.
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