Guadeloupe tries to defuse crisis
The scenario sounds familiar. On a far-off French-ruled island, natives demand independence. They blockade roads. They riot. In Paris, the government faces a domestic political crisis.
Despite these similarities, the violence in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe is different from that in the Pacific island of New Caledonia.
In New Caledonia, a large majority of the native Melanesians want independence. In Guadeloupe, a large majority of the native blacks have voted in election after election to maintain ties with France. Independence candidates get only about 5 percent of the vote, and even the leaders of the main pro-independence group say independence remains years away.
Economic factors help explain that choice. Largely due to French subsidies, Guadeloupe's 330,000 residents have a per capita income of $4,500, two to three times higher than that on neighboring independent islands. Education is free, and medical care and housing are subsidized.
Politically, too, Guadeloupe is privileged. It is a ``department'' in the French republic, with the same status as Lyon or Paris.
But in recent years, militant independence activists have set off explosives on Guadeloupe as well as on its sister island, Martinique. Sporadic violence turned into large-scale disruption recently when independence leader Georges Faisans was sentenced to three years in jail for wounding a white teacher who kicked a black student. Faisans went on hunger strike.
Late last week, independence activists set up roadblocks on the approaches to the capital, Point-`a-Pitre. Traffic ground to a halt. Gangs of youths plundered stores in the city.
At the weekend, 450 police reinforcements were flown to the island, doubling the number of law-enforcement officials there. Militants said they would disperse when Faisans is freed. Late Monday an appeals court ordered him released on parole, but it remained to be seen whether the barricades would be lifted.
Guadeloupe's troubles have embarrassed France's Socialist government. Opposition leaders argue that the decision to offer New Caledonia independence ``in association'' with France has inspired the militants in Guadeloupe.
``You are working toward abandoning all of France overseas,'' former Gaullist premier Michel Debre complained.
Pressed by their anticolonialist left wing, the Socialists want to satisfy the desires of the independence-minded in both Guadeloupe and New Caledonia. Over the weekend the government pushed through a bill authorizing a referendum in September on independence in New Caledonia.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for March, it wants to blunt any opposition charge of softness overseas. That means cracking down if necessary.