The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Behind 50 Years of Departmental Status, the French Colonial State Still Maintains Its Grip

May 5, 1996

The four French overseas departments (Départements d'Outre-Mer) have now had departmental status for fifty years. On March 19, 1946, the French National Assembly passed the law which legally transformed these "old colonies" into departments. [Of the 100 departments, that is administrative districts of the French state, only these 4 are located outside France itself.]

These territories – the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and Réunion in the Indian Ocean, plus French Guyana on the South American continent – were the oldest colonies of the French empire. They were set up as colonies during the struggles and conquests carried out between the major European states after Columbus's voyages to America.

These particular territories were fought over by the British and the French. They became "French" for good from the beginning of the 17th century onward, apart from short periods of British occupation before and during the French Revolution of 1789.

When the departmentalization law (or "assimilation law" as it was also known) was passed, the political and social life of these old colonies had already long been closely linked to that of France.

The history of two of these departments, Martinique and Guadeloupe, shows how the transformation from "colony" to "department" took place. It also shows that this transformation is far from complete.

Historical Background

The social and economic life of these four French colonies was shaped by the first settlers and by the slave-owning planters, then by the sugar manufacturers, in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries and the beginning of the 20th century. These colonies witnessed slavery and the slave trade, which supplied them with labor for nearly three centuries. Since the plantations took a heavy toll on human life – with high slave mortality – they had to be constantly repopulated.

After a brief period of freedom in Guadeloupe, which lasted from 1794 to 1802 during the peak of the French Revolution, slavery was re-established. It was finally officially abolished by the provisional government established in Paris by the revolution of 1848.

However, it took demonstrations and riots to force the governors of Martinique and Guadeloupe to apply this decision and proclaim the immediate abolition of slavery. The provisional government also established universal suffrage and for a short period (1848-51) there were elections in the two islands. Republicans, who fought to abolish slavery, were opposed to Conservatives, who thought that the blacks already had too many rights and that abolition of slavery was detrimental to work on the plantations.

The old plantation owners did not accept the new freedoms granted to their former slaves. The plantation owners were represented by stooges recruited among the earliest freed slaves, whereas the "Republicans" or "Schoelcherists" – named after the 1848 abolitionist – generally were supported by the mulattos and the blacks. Schoelcher himself was elected several times as a deputy in Martinique and Guadeloupe.

But blacks did not start playing a part in political life at that time. It was outsiders like Schoelcher or mulattos who presented themselves as the representatives of the interests of the black population.

A black party did not appear until 1891 when the first socialist party was created in Guadeloupe, led by a black man, H. Légitimus. This party presented itself as the black people's party. A few years later, in 1901, the Martinique socialists, led by Lagrosillière, joined the French Socialist Party.

The two Socialist Parties, that of Légitimus and that of Lagrosillière in Martinique, underwent a similar evolution. Having won municipal, legislative and cantonal elections – very easily in Guadeloupe and with more difficulty in Martinique – the socialists sat as elected representatives in the local assemblies and sent socialist deputies to France under the Third Republic.

Like the opportunist wing of the Socialist Party, the leaders of these two West Indian parties wanted to find a place in the bourgeois government. In 1902 Légitimus declared the need for an agreement between capital and labor. He was followed in this by Lagrosillière in 1919. The socialists were concerned mainly with electoral success, making various alliances with representatives of the capitalists.

Nonetheless, throughout this period, there were a few strikes, in some cases in opposition to the wishes of the Socialists. The great François strike of 1900 in Martinique was followed by the 1910 general strike by farm laborers in Guadeloupe. During the years which followed, up to World War II, there were constant strikes by farm laborers and sugar workers, often harshly repressed by colonial troops.

Throughout this period, the former slaves, now "free" workers, lived under brutal exploitation. Although free, many remained tied to the plantations because they received hardly any money, being constantly indebted to the bosses who paid them in vouchers or tokens enabling them to buy supplies in shops belonging to the bosses or under their control. Some workers lived on the plantation in "negro cabins" belonging to the plantation owner. The former slave-drivers were transformed into managers or accountants who controlled workers' whole lives. This whole situation meant that there were enormous social and political pressures on the workers when there were strikes or elections.

Poor hygiene conditions and intestinal diseases led to high infant mortality. Tropical diseases like malaria were common. Alcoholism was widespread, since rum was the product poor people could most easily buy.

Education was introduced very slowly, and was provided by private institutions reserved more for the rich and well-off mulattos than for the children of the poor. Education began to become public at the same time as in France, around the 1880s, but at a much slower pace. The first West Indian socialists had made education one of the main aims of their political struggles, but this aim served to distract people from further struggle. The wish to be integrated into France manifested itself first of all in the belief, very firmly ingrained in all poor blacks, that their future depended primarily on education. Poor people made major sacrifices to get their children out of the cane fields and factories and off the plantations. It was thought necessary to study in order to become at least an office worker or a town worker.

This attitude was based on a powerful illusion, for wage- earners in the towns did not enjoy a much more enviable fate, apart from the fact that they escaped the harshness of the cane harvest. In town, most workers lived in vile and crowded accommodations. The crowding encouraged the development of all kinds of diseases and personal conflicts, and it grew constantly worse because, after each crisis or concentration of the sugar industry, unemployment grew and drove country people toward the towns. Fires were frequent and often burned down whole sections of towns, since all the cabins were made of wood.

These districts were not renovated until the 1960's!

West Indian Deputies of the PCF Defend Departmentalization

It was against this background of brutal exploitation, repression and poverty that, during and after World War II, the West Indian socialists and communists (organized in local federations of the French Socialist and Communist parties) increased their influence. The PCF militants, in particular, were seen as the most combative, the most honest and the closest to the workers. They created and led most of the manual workers' and public sector workers' unions. They were constantly repressed, sentenced and fired from their jobs, but this only further increased their prestige among the poor masses.

When these parties and their militants presented assimilation into France as the way to escape from brutal repression and to benefit from social legislation which was supposed to be in force in France, the workers trusted them.

But this proved to be an illusion: assimilation into France did not bring the immediate and major benefits they were hoping for. The disappointment was later to result in a change of position among many militants and workers. Having at first thought that they had become "entirely French", they concluded bitterly, as Césaire put it, that they were an "entirely different type of French people".

Nonetheless, it was Césaire who, as a French Communist Party deputy, had defended the departmentalization law. Together with his comrades on the two islands, he helped reinforce the kind of illusion that Lagrosillière and Légitimus had created when they spoke of the agreement between capital and labor. The main difference was that the West Indian PCF members after World War II did not put their trust in the Martinique or Guadeloupe bosses, but in the French state and its laws, i.e. the state of the French bosses and the French colonies.

This stance by the Communists was a direct continuation of their patriotic alliance behind DeGaulle during the war. They justified this alliance by referring to the danger that the Caribbean islands, including the French islands, might come under American control.

However, the main motivation for passing the 1946 departmentalization law – clearly expressed by Césaire in his speeches and articles at the time – was the need to defuse the social explosion which was building up. This was to be done by imposing a few concessions on the bosses in Martinique in particular. These brutal and racist bosses (mainly made up of béké capitalists, the former slave-owning Creole whites) owned the factories, plantations and all the businesses in Martinique and part of it in Guadeloupe.

Césaire expressed himself clearly at the time: "While the West Indies and Réunion need assimilation to escape from the political and administrative chaos into which they have sunk, they need it above all to escape from the social chaos which is waiting around the corner. All observers agree that the problems are so acute in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Réunion that social peace is seriously threatened..."

The West Indian communists, who were members of the PCF, conducted the same policy in Martinique and Guadeloupe that the party conducted in France after World War II: ensuring that the transition from the Vichy regime to the "liberation" regime took place without unrest and that the state did not suffer a break in continuity, helping the bourgeoisie to re- establish itself by getting workers back to work.

The West Indian deputies of the PCF were later to justify their support for this departmentalization law by claiming that it was the aspiration of the masses and that it constituted a step forward. Perhaps. But even if it were so, they had done the opposite of what needed to be done in such a situation. Demanding the application of the social laws in force in France was only natural. But this could have been imposed by struggle without engaging in French nationalism and without leading the populations of Martinique and Guadeloupe to place their hopes in a bourgeois colonial state whose representatives and gendarmes had been shooting workers in every strike for decades.

If they had acted as genuine communists, they would have tried to demonstrate the limits and hypocrisy of "assimilation", and above all to openly harness the discontent of workers in order to "seriously" threaten not "public peace" but the social order established by the big béké planters and the French companies which owned the sugar mills, distilleries and big plantations. That social order had been maintained not only thanks to the armed protection of the colonial forces of repression, the gendarmes of French imperialism, but also thanks to the moderation or reformism of the recognized leaders of the workers' movement since the beginning of the century.

If they had acted as genuine communists, they would have strongly condemned the hypocrisy of "assimilation" and called on workers to use their struggles to create a favorable relationship of forces, the only thing which could have quickly imposed the desired changes, instead of having them dragging out slowly over a period of fifty years.

That hypocrisy was clearly manifest in the very text of the law of 1946, which stated:

"Article 2: The laws and decrees currently in force in metropolitan France and which are not yet applied to these colonies, will, before the 1st of January 1947, be the subject of decrees of application to these new departments.

"Article 3: After this law is promulgated, new laws applicable to the home country will be applicable in these departments on explicit indication inserted in the texts."

Subsequent events were to show that these "decrees of application" and "explicit indications" would be used to delay the application of laws favorable to workers! Practically all social laws and other laws, especially when they were favorable to workers and even when they were decreed to be applicable, required (and still require) struggles on the part of workers. And this was the case even for the most elementary laws concerning union rights, universal suffrage and freedom of the press or opinion.

One of the main reasons given by the leaders of the West Indian federations of the PCF for behaving like auxiliaries of the bourgeois state was the fact that the békés themselves and all the reactionaries were against the application of the social laws in force in France. But there was nothing new about this. But what the West Indian Communists did by supporting assimilation into France was to plant the idea in the minds of workers and the poor that they could look to the central French state for protection, entrusting the defense of their interests to that state. This was to leave a deep impression and create reflexes which, still today, have harmful consequences on social struggles. The unions today often follow this same line of conduct when they encourage striking workers to appeal to the prefect (the representative of the central French state in the department) to "arbitrate" between themselves and the bosses!

If these illusions had not been planted, workers would have been better armed morally to impose their real aspirations, not only in 1946 but also in the struggles which marked the following years.

In reality, the policy conducted by the parties of the left at that time was largely responsible for the subsequent weakening of the West Indian workers' movement. For fifty years, that movement has been constantly on the defensive, even while engaged in struggles and opposition to various forms of repression by French imperialism.

The communist federations, which in 1956 became communist parties independent of the PCF, suffered the consequences of this policy. The election results of the West Indian communist parties have been in constant decline from this period down to the present day. From 1946 until the 1950's, the communist parties won around 40% of the vote in elections. At times they held a majority in the local assemblies in alliance with the socialists, and they controlled many town councils in the new overseas departments. Then their share of the vote began to erode.

Starting in the 1960s, through the '70s, the Guadeloupe and Martinique Communist Parties (PCG and PCM) were weakened by splits and resignations.

The great split which weakened the Martinique federation took place when Aimé Césaire left the PCF in 1956. He used the events in Hungary as a pretext for leaving the party, but his letter of resignation essentially was a justification for turning to moderate nationalism purged of any reference to communism. This split led to the creation of the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais. It also opened up the possibility for Césaire to play a "national role", once rid of his communist label.

In Guadeloupe, there were two main periods of splits. The first, in 1967, was caused by the emergence of a dissident tendency within the PCG which criticized the PCG for not really fighting to mobilize the masses over the call for autonomy. Much later, at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was a split when nearly all the party's elected representatives quit, condemning "communism" and setting up a new "democratic and progressive" party.

The PCG and the PCM also faced competition from new organizations which were, in appearance and language, more determined to oppose French colonial domination.

On the political level, the PCG and PCM advocated "autonomy within the framework of a union with France". On the social level, the preponderant and permanent electoral concerns of their political leaderships impacted on the way communist militants acted in the trade unions. They suffered under a lack of clear perspectives, a result of their party's lack of concern for the struggles of workers in workplaces. The leaders of the PCM and the PCG saw workers more as voters than as members of a class which has to emancipate itself from capitalist exploitation through class struggle.

Thus, when nationalist organizations emerged, they were somewhat able to outflank the communist parties on the nationalist plane. They also succeeded in developing some roots among the masses by exploiting the weaknesses and minor or major betrayals of workers' struggles by the communist leaders of the CGTM and CGTG trade unions, who were bogged down in the political moderation and electoralism of their parties. By exploiting explosive situations which had been neglected by the CGTM and CGTG, in the plantations in particular, the nationalist militants were able to get themselves noticed and then implant themselves in a significant section of the poor population.

Two organizations in particular have succeeded in this area, having created both political parties and unions. These are the Mouvement Indépendantiste Martiniquais and the Union Populaire pour la Libération de la Guadeloupe. They now control two unions, the Confédération Syndicale des Travailleurs Martiniquais and the Union Générale des Travailleurs Guadeloupéens.

These organizations, which are very active in workplaces, led many strikes from the 1960's into the 1980's, strikes which in many ways seemed more militant and more determined than the movements led by the two CGT confederations. But these nationalist movements expressed the interests of the petty bourgeoisie and of certain layers of local politicians and defended the development of a future West Indian bourgeoisie. By the very nature, the nationalist organizations were no more willing nor able to give social and political perspectives to the struggles of the workers and the poor. Today these organizations, after relative successes in various local elections, are mainly concerned with playing their part as dignitaries in the local assemblies.

The Results of "Departmentalization"

Despite the passing of the departmentalization law, the former colonies continued to exist under a specific status which led to injustices of all kinds: arrests or even murders of workers during strikes; repression and fraud in elections; repression of riots caused by racial incidents (1961 and 1974 in Martinique - 1952 and 1967 in Guadeloupe); immediate transfers of civil servants considered too anti-colonialist; banning of West Indian or French newspapers which condemned, even in moderate terms, the persisting colonial reality in these overseas territories; and colonial trials of young nationalist militants in Martinique in 1964 and in Guadeloupe in 1968.

French citizenship has given workers in these colonies, in addition to the legal classification, the right to have the same gendarmes, riot police and courts as workers in France, with the colonial bonus of a prefect acting virtually as a viceroy in each overseas department.

The defenders of departmentalization and the advocates of the "French presence" point to the social and economic progress achieved in the overseas departments, which is much greater than in the neighboring islands which have become independent. The standard of living of the population has certainly improved over the last fifty years. Up until 1953, a 40-50% cost-of-living bonus was given to people from France who worked in public services in the West Indies, but it was not given to West Indian people themselves working in the same posts. In 1953, when this cost-of-living bonus was extended to West Indian people, the standard of living of the population made a marked improvement since so many people were employed by the French state. Of course, it did not improve for everyone.

However, the extension of "social benefits" to the new departments was characterized above all by the slow and grudging way in which it was applied. Social security and family allowances, which were grouped together in a single fund, began to operate according to existing laws only from 1950 onward. It subsequently took years to achieve a kind of parity with France, not until legislation was passed in 1986. Supposedly, a partial eradication of differences in allowances and other social benefits was slated to be implemented between 1988 and 1992. It took many protests, strikes and demonstrations to achieve this. This was the case for all forms of allowances. Family allowances were cut by half, only 50% being paid to families under the pretext that the local assemblies and prefects would make better use of the other half. Even today, some benefits are not paid at the same level as in France.

This was also the case with the minimum wage, which for years was officially lower than that applied in France. It rose only gradually, not reaching parity with France until this year! The same was true of the RMI (a minimum benefit for the unemployed), which is applied in the overseas departments but with part of the sum deducted, again to be handled by the local assemblies.

Who Benefits from State Aid to the Overseas Departments?

Major programs to build housing, roads, schools, hospitals, etc. were launched. The public works and construction sector developed, leading to the hiring of thousands of workers in this sector. This was followed by electrification.

But to whom was the majority of the wages and of the allowances added to state subsidies actually redistributed? Who grew rich from this miraculous source? The French capitalists who owned the big new construction companies as well as the older sugar mills, together with local capitalists who imported foodstuffs, domestic appliances and above all cars.

Thus, for example, the importers of private cars, who are rich dealers mostly belonging to the béké milieu (although there are also a few non-békés) profit from the fact that public transport has never been organized satisfactorily in the overseas departments, apart from limited initiatives by certain town councils.

Has economic development taken place? Not in the real sense of the term. The islands' economies have continued to be trading posts for France and suppliers of agricultural products, mainly sugar, rum and bananas. These crops have monopolized most farm land and supplanted basic food crops. As a result, most food is still imported from France today. The local caste of importers, linked to the big French or European distribution chains, blocks any real and broad initiatives in the area of agricultural diversification through its control of certain banks or through its general influence. On the other hand, supermarkets and megamarkets are springing up all over the islands.

French capitalists in the concrete, tar and general equipment sectors found a nice protected market reserved for them in the overseas departments, from which they have profited a lot.

Public works in these departments is a profitable market because it provides regular orders and the guarantee of state subsidies in various forms: investment bonuses, deductions in social charges, tax deductions, export bonuses, etc.

The big béké planters of Martinique and the French or European shareholders of the Guadeloupe sugar mills (people like the Schneiders, the Rothschilds, the Bank of Holland, Baron Empain, etc.) have greatly benefited from the fact that the price paid for sugar and bananas in France was (and still is) much higher than on the world market. And this was the case for many decades before departmentalization. Production of these crops is still subsidized for export to France and Europe. Producers are guaranteed a certain quota for the sale of their agricultural produce. This benefits the local planters, but it obviously benefits the big planters more than the small ones.

However, there is also a whole chain of middlemen who profit from the labor of the farm workers and the sugar mills. These include shipping agents, importers and sellers of conditioning products and plant protection products, fertilizers, etc.

The overseas departments have operated and still operate as part of a financial circuit involving the state, the overseas departments and external or local capitalists, French or otherwise. The money which comes in at one end goes out through the other end, and only a very small proportion is reinvested in the islands themselves. Funds are transferred from state coffers to those of the capitalists. Consumers in the West Indies or Réunion are only the intermediaries in this traffic. In reality they have benefited only very slightly from it compared to the sums pocketed along the way by the local bourgeoisie, while the big French or international companies take the lion's share. After a detour through the overseas departments, the money comes back to France, being deposited into the accounts of the big companies or various shareholders, and also into the accounts of the small handful of rich people in Martinique or Guadeloupe, békés or otherwise.

This period of fifty years was certainly long enough to have set up the means to develop at least certain local productions which were viable and useful to the population! Instead of doing this, the colonial state has perpetuated the big plantations supplying sugar and banana exports, thus maintaining and reinforcing a blatant injustice in the distribution of land and therefore of agricultural income. This unequal distribution means that in Martinique, the békés' base and stronghold, two thirds of farming concerns live on less than 9% of farm land, while at the other end of the scale 1.4% of concerns farm 43% of the land. The distribution is less unequal in Guadeloupe, but even there, 1% of agricultural concerns own 26% of farm land. And these landowners are in some cases the same ones as in Martinique!

What Objectives for Workers in the Overseas Departments?

The list of improvements made in the standard of living is only a way of dressing up a situation which is much less satisfactory than the defenders of departmentalization claim. Under these tropical climates and sunny skies, there is chronic unemployment and a chronic housing shortage. Although the government succeeded in keeping unemployment stable in the sixties and seventies, this was because of the mass exodus of young people to France in search of work. This exodus has gradually dried up with the rise of unemployment in France. Today one in three of the working population is unemployed in these territories (with levels ranging from 30% to 40% in the different islands).

If the difficulties of living in France were to grow still worse because of the deteriorating economic and social situation there and a large number of West Indians and people from Réunion were to return to their islands, the situation in these islands would quickly become untenable. The production and jobs available there would not be enough to employ such surplus labor.

There is no future under capitalism for these islands. If economic difficulties grew worse in France, as we have already seen, the state would increasingly withdraw from the public sector, and to a certain extent the overseas departments are part of this "public sector". In other words, their future is not in their own hands under the present state of affairs. When the day comes that the state decides to reduce its share in various forms of expenditure, and in particular in public sector wages (by abolishing the 40 or 50% bonus), these islands will find themselves with a major economic problem to solve.

How could even some of the basic needs of a combined Martinique/Guadeloupe population be satisfied? This population could reach nearly one million in the not-too-distant future; today it lives in relatively small territories where a very large proportion of farm land has already been built on.

What political and economic orientations are possible, and what are the perspectives corresponding to the interests of the workers and poor in these countries?

Representatives of the state and local defenders of the colonial bourgeoisie constantly talk about the large sums devoted in the state budget to "helping" the overseas departments. These sums are combined today with those paid by the European Union. According to official figures, the total amount of funding of all kinds is in excess of 45 billion francs each year (9 billion dollars) for the overseas departments and territories.

Local nationalist politicians - and many of those belonging to traditional parties are nationalists on this question - aspire to a greater autonomy for the islands in order to be able to handle these sums themselves.

These sums of money are considerable, and could indeed contribute to an improvement in living conditions and the development of viable local or regional economies. But this requires control over the use of this money. Today, it is above all the external or local capitalists, a certain petty bourgeois layer of well-off West Indian dealers and a few top officials of the French state who profit from these billions.

It is essential for the workers and peoples of the overseas departments to know where the money goes and who profits from what. How is the money spent? What is built? What is useful or not useful? What are the priorities? A whole economic policy could thus be elaborated by the workers of the so-called overseas departments. A policy which would enable them to check up on the fortunes and accounts of big and not-so-big capitalists, békés or otherwise, in the West Indies, Réunion and French Guiana.

The future depends on workers' struggles. It depends on the struggle for workers' control over what is done when public contracts are signed in local assemblies, on control over the accounts of the huge agricultural estates still devoted to sugar cane, bananas or pineapples (in Martinique). It depends on workers' control over everything which is done in this economy. The workers of the West Indies, by imposing control over companies' accounts, all companies' accounts (including those of state-owned companies), could help ensure that some of the money assigned in the state budget to the development of these territories is actually used for its stated purposes.

In French governing circles, it is periodically fashionable to raise the question of the cost of these overseas departments, referred to by one politician as "France's dancing girls".

But those who claim that "the overseas departments cost the French state a lot of money", i.e. cost the taxpayer a lot of money, without any further elaboration, are as much liars as those who assert that, in France itself, "measures to combat unemployment" cost the state a lot of money.

Yes, they cost a lot of money. What is lied about is who profits from this money. Strict control would show that it is not the population of Guadeloupe or Martinique as a whole which is subsidized by the French state but a thin privileged layer, including many people whose only link with the West Indies is that they grow rich there.

People like that have every reason to draw up a positive balance sheet for departmentalization, even if some of them today would like to see a change of status giving more autonomy to local politicians to use and distribute the money. But whether these islands' status is retained or modified, all of these people will distribute this money within the privileged layer.

The working class and the poor population in general have no reason to let themselves be pulled into this internal discussion of the bourgeoisie. The working class needs to impose another policy, the starting point of which is the vital interests of workers, the unemployed and the poor.

This is obviously a question of the relationship of forces, but it is also a question of political perspective.