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Deadlock in talks over riots on French Caribbean islands

France's minister for overseas territories left the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe on Monday night at an impasse over ways to end more than a week of violent protests sparked by Covid-19 restrictions.

Sebastien Lecornu talks to media in Guadeloupe.
Sebastien Lecornu talks to media in Guadeloupe. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

Before departing for more talks in neighbouring Martinique, Sebastien Lecornu told reporters that the Guadeloupe negotiations had been deadlocked over the “obvious and indispensable” demand that the various unions condemn the violence.

Discussions were not possible so long as the unions “do not want to condemn assassination attempts” against security forces, he said.

Unrest in the former colonial outpost began with a protest over compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations for health workers, but quickly ballooned into a broader revolt over living conditions, and spread to next door Martinique.

Both islands are now under curfew.

In the French overseas territories, each of which has close to 400,000 inhabitants, residents complain of greater poverty, higher costs for basic goods and poorer public services than on the mainland.

Lecornu said his talks with four union representatives in Guadeloupe were limited to the receipt of a list of demands.

Maite Hubert-M’Toumo, secretary general of Guadeloupe’s main trade union UGTG, said the requests include a suspension of the vaccine mandate for health professionals, no convictions for protesters over the violence and improvement of living conditions for Guadeloupean families.

Lecornu, who laid responsibility for some of the issues at the feet of local elected officials, said he expects to make better headway in Martinique where the “republican prerequisite” for negotiations has already been met.

The explosion of unrest on the islands has put the fate of overseas territories on the agenda of the campaign heading into 2022 elections, with President Emmanuel Macron’s opponents accusing him of neglecting the former colonial outposts.

Ahead of his visit, Lecornu had floated the possibility of giving Guadeloupe, the more troubled of the two territories, more autonomy.

His proposal drew fire from the opposition, with centre-right presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand accusing the government of being ready to let France “be broken up” and far-right leader Marine Le Pen accusing Lecornu of trying to “buy off” hardline pro-independence groups.

Lecornu’s remarks also received a lukewarm response from lawmakers in Guadeloupe, who said the immediate priority was tackling high levels of youth unemployment and other social problems.

On his arrival in Guadeloupe on Sunday, Lecornu vowed to stand firm on the obligation for health workers and first responders to be vaccinated against Covid by December 31st or face suspension without pay. But he insisted he was open to dialogue on other issues.

The vaccine mandate for health workers, which was enforced in September on the mainland, has met with greater resistance in Guadeloupe and Martinique, where vaccine hesitancy is high.

Protesters barricaded roads with burning tyres or taxis and hurled petrol bombs at the security forces in some of the worst unrest in the islands in years.

In Martinique, several businesses were looted and five police officers were injured by gunfire.

Calm had been largely restored by the weekend, however, with only minor skirmishes reported.

France lost most of its overseas possessions around 60 years ago, when its African colonies declared independence, a few years after French territories in Southeast Asia.

READ ALSO ‘Confetti of an empire’ – France’s overseas territories

But Paris still retains control over 12 territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as in the Caribbean, that are home to a total of 2.6 million people.

While some, like Guadeloupe and Martinique, have the same status as regions on the mainland, others, such as French Polynesia, have already been granted autonomy.

The Pacific islands of New Caledonia are to vote next month in the third of three independence referendums.

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MONEY

Revealed: What will you receive from France’s €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

The French parliament has finally passed a massive €65 billion package of measures aimed at helping French residents with the spiralling cost of living. Here's a rundown of the help on offer, who it's available to and when it comes into effect.

Revealed: What will you receive from France's €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

After three weeks of sometimes heated debate, France’s parliament has adopted its multi-part purchasing power package to help mitigate rising cost of living and inflation.

In total, parliament approved a budget of nearly €65 billion for the whole package. 

It includes a raft of measures including price shields, tax rebates and grants. Here’s what is included and who will benefit.

Electricity and gas The government has voted to extend the tariff shield on gas and electricity prices until the end of the year: this means that gas prices will continue to remain frozen and that price hikes for electricity prices will be capped at four percent. 

For who: This applies to everyone who has a gas or electricity account in France.

When: The price freeze is already in effect and will continue until at least December 31st.

Fuel subsidy – The government’s fuel rebate (on petrol/gasoline and diesel) will be increased from €0.18 per litre to €0.30 in September and October, and then in November and December it will fall to €0.10. 

For who: All drivers (including tourists) – this is applied automatically at all fuel stations in France

When: The €0.18 per litre rebate is already in place and remains until August 31st, and rises to €0.30 on September 1st.

Pensions – The index point for pensions will be raised by four percent.

Who: This covers anyone who receives a French pension – roughly 14 million people – it does not affect anyone who gets a pension from another country.

When: From September 9th. 

Abolishing the TV licence fee – The annual TV licence raised €3.7 billion a year for public broadcasting, with the majority having gone toward France Télévisions, but has now been scrapped. It was €138 per household. 

For who: Any household with a television. This equates to about 23 million households in France who will no longer have to pay this yearly tax.

When: The was due to be levied on November 15th, but this year no bills will be sent out.

Tripling the Macron bonus – The maximum annual bonus – which is exempt from income and social security taxes – will be tripled.

It is a one time, tax-free payout that can be given to workers by their employers – if they chose to. Companies will now be able to pay up to €3,000 to their employees (and up to €6,000 for those with a profit-sharing scheme).

Who: This pertains to salariés (employees) whose businesses choose to offer this bonus.

When: The bonus can be paid between August 1st and December 31st.

Rent cap – Rent increases will be limited to 3.5 percent per year for existing tenants. Some cities already have in place their own rent control schemes, but the 3.5 percent cap is nationwide.

Who – This affects anyone who already has a tenancy agreement for a property in France (and also affects all landlords who are banned from making big rent hikes).

When – The 3.5 percent cap concerns annual rent increases that fall between July 2022 and June 2023.

Housing allowance – Those who benefit from personalised assistance for housing (APL) will see that increased by 3.5 percent.

Who: This pertains to those who qualify for governmental financial assistance with rent. Typically, this means low-income households. If you are already on APL – around 3.5 million people – the increase will be automatic, if you think you might qualify, apply through your local CAF.

When: The increase comes in your next payment, with the increased rate backdated to July 1st 2022.

Social benefits – The RSA top-up benefit will be increased by four percent (local authorities, who deal with RSA, will receive €600 million to help them finance and allocate this increase). Additionally, those who benefit from the ‘prime d’activité‘ (activity bonus) will see that value raised by four percent as well.

Who: Unemployed people below the age of 25 can qualify for RSA – this pertains to about 1.9 million people in France. The activity bonus is available to low-income workers – about 4.3 million people.

When: Catch-up payments will be in place from August 18th to September 5th. On September 5th, the updated payment will begin to be paid out.

Student grants – An increase of 4 percent for student grants (bourses) for higher education

Who: Students under the age of 28 who qualify for financial assistance in the form of grants. These students must qualify as ‘financially precarious’ for the school year of 2022-2023.

When: September 2022

Back-to-school grants – Families who meet certain income requirements are eligible for an allowance to help cover back-to-school costs – that grant will increase by four percent this year. There will also be an extra €100 subsidy for eligible families (with an additional €50 per child) paid “to those who need it most” according to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in an interview with RTL. 

Who: Low-income families with children. You can test your family’s eligibility on the website www.service-public.fr. This aid will impact 10.8 million households.

When: The one time payment will be paid at the start of the school-year in September.

The option to convert overtime days into extra cash – This is encompassed in two measures: increasing the ceiling of tax exempt overtime hours to €7,500 and opening the possibility for companies to buy back RTT days from their employees.

Eligible employees covered by the 35-hour week agreement accrue time in lieu if they work overtime, known as RTT days. Currently this time is taken as extra vacation days, but now employees will have the option to forgo the time off and instead be paid extra.

Who: For the buying back of RTT days, this applies to employees (salariés) who have an RTT agreement with their company.

For the increased cap on non-taxed overtime work, this applies to a range of employees, such as those who have 35-hour per week contracts and have their employer request that they work overtime or those who work beyond their part-time contract amount. You can learn more about whether you have the ability to declare overtime hours HERE

When: The RTT days buyout will run from between January 1st, 2022 to December 31st, 2025. For employees eligible for tax-free overtime compensation, the ceiling of €7,500 will only be in place for the year 2022.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

Pay rise for public sector workers – public sector pay will get a four percent rise in the index.

Who: Anyone employed in France as a fonctionnaire (eg civil servants, teachers, librarians).

When: This will be retroactive to July 1st

Assistance for some self-employed workers – A reduction in health and maternity insurance contributions will be introduced for low-earning self-employed workers. “Microentrepreneurs” will also benefit from a reduction in their flat-rate contributions.

Who: Self-employed workers whose monthly income does not exceed 1.6 times the minimum wage and who are registered as ‘microentrepeneurs’

When: TBC

The biometric carte vitale –  The Senate introduced this into the purchasing power package, but it is not a benefit. It will involve the implementation of a biometric carte vitale health card to “fight against social fraud” by adding an electronic chip with biometric data on it to health insurance cards. You can read more HERE.

Who: Everyone who is registered in the French health system and has a carte vitale (about 60 million people)

When: Lawmakers will begin plans to implement the plans in Autumn 2022, but it’s not clearly exactly what form the rollout will take.

How much will these measures impact inflation?

Some measures will likely be more effective than others. For instance, the extension of the tariff shield and increase of the fuel rebate in the early fall is largely to thank for France’s inflation level being two points lower than the European average, according to INSEE.

On the other hand, the tripling of the ceiling for the (optional) Macron bonus will likely not make a large difference. This is because it will likely not be widely taken advantage of, as last year only 4 million French people received the optional bonus, with the approximate average of the bonus having been only €500.

The pension changes will impact about 14.8 million people in France. However, according to economist Christopher Dembik, the revalorsation values are based on actual inflation and not on inflation expectations. “These revaluation measures will be too weak by the time they will be implemented,” Dembik said to French daily Le Parisien.

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