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Class Struggle in Martinique in an Historical Context

Translated Sunday 4 October 2009, by Kieran O’Meara and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Born in 1925, the author of a "History of Martinique" in three volumes, as well as numerous works about the French Carribean, the Martinican historian Armand Nicolas gives us an analysis of the general strike in Martinique.

How would you analyze the general strike taking place on Martinique and Guadeloupe?

Armand Nicolas. I believe that we have just experienced the most significant social movement ever to take place in Martinique. The Martinican working class has a strong tradition of struggle behind it. A number of strikes, involving bloodshed for the most part, have marked its history. That of February 1900, or the great civil service strike of 1951... We have a tradition. But a movement as large, as diverse, and as powerful as this one is exceptional. One cannot say definitively today what the consequences of such of such a phenomenon will be. It has very strongly affected people’s minds. Beyond the trades unions, who took the initiative in the struggle, other social groups joined up with it. They allied themselves to the movement, which they saw as their standard-bearer. That gave rise to the Collectif du 5 février which brought together almost every section of society, except for the wealthy. Its demands have made it a very broad anti-capitalist movement. It’s also a very deep movement, in the sense that it has not limited itself to one or two major demands but has instead raised all the questions which working people, in their diversity, are faced with. It has, moreover, a platform of demands which lists most of the problems faced in Martinique right now, whether they might be economic, social or cultural problems. This is a new phenomenon. We had been accustomed to the classic approach. Relatively limited, quite precise demands. But in this case, however, it’s as if everyone who had thought about their problems rallied together, and found themselves engaged in a common action. What was most striking was, despite the diversity involved, how cohesive the movement was.

What other Martinican social movements does the present movement bring to mind?

Armand Nicolas. The movement of February the 5th 2009 calls to mind the one that took place in February 1935, with the sheer force of the working masses, with the added meaning of the organization of its struggle through the setting up of trade unions. It was at this time that most of the big unions were set up. It was the period of the Popular Front in France, which was marked in Martinique for several months by a number of social movements which carried with them wide sections of both the public and private sector workforce. Strikes and demonstrations, which saw the organized Martinican working class come into being along with the trade unions. Different sectors fought for the same aims: higher wages and salaries, the forty-hour week... However, they didn’t rally together. Each sector fought from its own corner at the same time. In any case, this led to a series of victories by the working class such as paid holidays and the family allowance... February 1935, February 2009. February is a favourable month for social upheavals which bring about quite far-reaching change. The most important characteristic of this strike was its strength. Its organization. Discipline and cohesion carried through to the end. The tactics were sound despite the difficulties which began to appear towards the end. You felt that the movement was beginning to slacken. Its opponents, whether they might be the state or the employers, tried to use methods of attrition. Causing the negotiations to drag on at length to tire people out. It wasn’t by chance that the békés entered the fray with their tractors. One more provocation could have really set things off.

How did the remarks made by the béké Huyghes Despointes go down after the Canal Plus documentary "Les Derniers Maîtres de la Martiniques" (The Last Masters of Martinique) was broadcast?

Armand Nicolas. The social movement was galvanized, in a way, by the positions taken up by some of the more backward and reactionary sections of the békés. The Despointes family, the Hayots, who are in fact still the great feudal masters of the country, were trying to bring about a violent situation. They had everything to gain from it. To cause things to explode. To lead people to resort to violence. They would have fallen on their feet if they could have blamed the people for the resulting unrest. It is, moreover, quite a new thing to see the békés take to the streets, to join in by setting up barricades. It shows how isolated they are. Because if they take to the streets, it’s because they can’t find anyone willing to do it for them. The Collectif movement was well organized. Well structured. The risk that, as time elapsed, the struggle would be given up because of the belief that most of what needed to be done had been achieved, turned out to be empty. However, such a long strike is not to be taken lightly. Not only do people lose money, life itself becomes difficult. A great deal of what was most important was won by the Collectif. This shows that when you fight you can win.

With the actions that are still going on right now, is the movement going to quietly fizzle out or will it burst out again?

Armand Nicolas. It’s quite hard to say. If you take the experience, and what has been done right up to the present, into account, there’s a point at which, in the case of long movements, they become tiring. And a general strike isn’t going to start up again in the next fortnight! Unless something serious takes place. For example, if the employers refuse to pay the wage increases. Certain conditions could bring about a revival of the movement. But, on the whole, I don’t think that’s going to happen very quickly. The risk is that the consequences of ongoing actions at individual firms could intensify. Some people, who don’t believe they have got what they had demanded, might continue their individual struggles. However, we won’t end up with another general strike.

Opponents of the movement have spoken of an independence movement with racist aspects. What do you think of this?

Armand Nicolas. As far as the question of racism goes, it’s not difficult to answer. It is the békés who have brought it into the equation. And that might well be a manoeuvre to make public opinion, especially public opinion elsewhere, believe that the movement is a social movement in appearance only, but that in reality we want to slit the throats of the whites. A way to arouse a solidarity movement against black savages ready to cut the heads off their white fathers. Huyghes Despointes was pouring petrol onto fire with his statements. There again we have the worst-case scenario. Forcing the other to take up attitudes and to make gestures that go against the interests of the people. When the békés tried to form barricades with their tractors and the demonstrators wouldn’t let them through, they claimed straightaway that weren’t being prevented from moving around the island. It was an attack on their freedoms. The racial aspect introduced into the movement, by the békés themselves, notably through Despointes’s statements, had no sequels. Moreover, the presence of white people in the demonstrations showed that the Martinicans hadn’t fallen into the trap. To say that separatists had pushed for the strike wasn’t true. The slogan, "Matinik cé ta nou cé pa ta yo!" (Martinique is ours, not theirs!), is not necessarily a separatist slogan. The Martinican would like to take back her past, her culture, her world, her consciousness and her personality. She has affirmed this. In its struggle for progress, the people is aware that it is facing a white aristocracy, with békés among them much of the time. And that aristocracy is exploitive and profiteering. Hence the term "la pwofitasyon".

There is an aristocracy which is white, béké, and capitalist, but there is also black capitalism too...

Armand Nicolas. That which has appeared in Martinique as a crisis of capitalism makes the capitalists responsible for it. Two camps stand out. The opponent which needs to be overturned is capitalism. White for the most part in Martinique, even if the others shouldn’t be forgotten. What the Collectif showed was that it fought the opponent no matter what colour it was. One mustn’t delude the Martinican into thinking that black capitalism would be any better than white capitalism. At the moment, there is a section of the békés who are trying to reach out to people of colour through the Tous créoles (All creoles together) association. [1] This movement, which gathers together elements of the Martinican petite-bourgeoisie along with a small group of békés, is nothing new. "All creoles", that’s Bissette in 1848 (Cyrille Bissette, a Martinican abolitionist elected to the legislature in the election of 9 August 1848- Editor’s note). When faced with the upheaval of the abolition of slavery, as at all great turning-points in history, the ruling class didn’t put all its eggs in one basket. A way to make a small sacrifice. In appearance. Hypocritically. Today Tous créoles exists in a different context. It’s a movement which is in no way surprising because this is the kind of move that the ruling class always makes, in order to hold on to its power to the greatest extent possible, when change is underway. That’s also the reason some békés have opposed Huyghes Despointes.

Is there a connection between the strike movement and the legacy of slavery?

Armand Nicolas. Yes and no. When the Martinican says: "péyi a sé ta nou cé pa ta yo" ("This country belongs to us, not to you") - "yo" means the békés of today. But we think that it has always been them from the very beginning. In my opinion that’s the sole connection between the past and the present. It’s a struggle with the same people pitted against the same adversary. (C’est le combat des mêmes contre les mêmes. Literally- "It is a struggle of the same people against the same people.). It’s true, on the whole, but it’s not exactly true. Today’s society is not that of 1848. The social structures are different, and many other things are different as well. But when you have an expression like "C’est le combat des mêmes contre les mêmes", it means, in the broadest sense, it’s a struggle of the exploited classes against the ruling classes, which have been the same for a long time. With the exception that the latter are no longer slave-owners but are now capitalists. In my opinion, that’s the connection that was made. Undoubtedly, this movement has brought about a profound state of reflection among the people of Martinique. How to leave their demands aside to think about other fundamental problems: the Martinican character, identity and culture... It had struck me well before the movement arrived. The last ten years have been heading towards this evolution.

The Martinicans, like the Guadeloupeans, say they have rediscovered solidarity with each other and the island’s own home-grown produce... What do you think of this?

Armand Nicolas. You could say that this happened out of necessity because nothing else was available. I don’t think one should be too optimistic. These questions won’t be answered at a deep level or in a short space of time. It’s a phenomenon which will progress and grow. The economy, that is to say the real economy, is organized in such a way that it has us within its grasp. We don’t produce enough. Not enough fish, nor enough meat. Not enough sugar. Too many bananas perhaps? This country’s economy is still a neocolonial economy. We’re inside it. And it hasn’t disappeared because we had this general strike, however great it might have been. When the supermarkets opened their doors, we had to go there to buy cooking oil. And other basic food items as well. Everyone knows that it’s more convenient to go to the supermarket than to twenty different little shops. For all sorts of reasons, we’re still very much caught within the system even if we’ve become reacquainted with our native produce. We now understand the factors which prevented us from dying of hunger perhaps. Moving on to another philosophy of consumption will be more difficult. But the fact must not escape us that, in our shared consciousness, the emergence of that idea was helpful to us.

What do you think of Sarkozy’s Estates-General of the Overseas Territories?

Armand Nicolas. Sarkozy’s Estates-General are not the Estates-General of the people of Martinique. Even if this consultative process tallies with our preoccupations as the Communist Party of Martinique have been calling for an Estates-General for years. We have sought responsibilities, not the kind of Estates-General on offer now, which are a means to call a halt to the movement. "I will grant you an Estates-General, where you can speak freely in whatever way you choose. In the meantime, however, get back to work." It’s a trick. These Estates-General are well supervised. With a super-prefect, who is black, of course. People will fall into the trap. But what kind of Estates-General is on offer? From the point of view of its structure and execution, the authorities and the servants of power are going to arrange something which will be acceptable to them. They will be Sarkozy’s Estates-General. With some new ideas which won’t get very far. The political organizations are, moreover, quite reserved as far as this subject is concerned. The Estates-General of the Overseas Territories? Sé ta yo! Sé pa ta nou! (Its theirs, not ours!).

What would you say to the Martinicans in regards to the 22nd of May (Abolition Day) and the commemorations of that event? And what would you say about the status of the Overseas Territories which might be of contemporary relevance?

Armand Nicolas. The 22nd of May is arriving on top of the period we’ve just lived through. This coincidence of events risks carrying more weight than it has in the past. But that would be nothing extraordinary. When the slogan first appeared, it was said that nothing in Martinique would ever be the same again. However, there hasn’t been a revolution. For as long as the colonial power stays in place unchanged, and the capitalist class remains unchanged, nothing will change. As long as power remains in the hands of the neocolonialists and the local aristocracy, Martinique will be as it always has been. The movement of the Collectif of February the 5th will not have been of much use. But if, little by little, our people becomes conscious of itself, if people who, at the beginning, were whining because things weren’t moving quickly enough for them, because an historic opportunity had been missed and time had been wasted, pull themselves together, we can be optimistic. Things will come about when they must come about. When the conditions are ripe. As many Martinicans as possible must be brought together around the problem of the change of status, as far as the Constitution currently permits. This possibility must be put to use, while fully conscious that it is not a definitive solution, or a panacea. A means, however, to work towards what we truly hope for. If people are not made aware that consultation on the change of status is in the spirit of the February movement, then we’ll have failed.

[1An association with the aim of bringing blacks and whites together created by the béké Roger de Jaham.

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