‘Vous-êtes raciste, raciste!’, the words spat out of the mouth of the black woman. ‘Pourquoi vous me chassez, c’est parce que je suis nègre, vous êtes raciste!’. She is enraged and moves to re-enter the café terrace she was just been sent away from and physically attack the white waitress she is shouting at. Then the owner looms in the door opening, alerted by the fracas, and she walks away past the tables where I and others are following the spectacle and down the pedestrian street full of Saturday shoppers. I return to the ‘Canard Enchainé’ and ‘Le Figaro’ newspapers I bought in the librairie just before. The librairie was identical to the one on the rue Saint André des Arts, where I live in Paris, right down to the copies of the ‘Particulier à Particulier’ on the rack (weekly listing of homes for sale or rent that I used extensively looking for apartments in Paris), that I really had not expected to see in Point-à-Pitre on Guadeloupe.
It was not the first sign of tension I had come across this morning. Entering the Gare Maritime by car to go and check out ferry times for my upcoming trip to Dominica, a group of young guys in carnival masks blocked my way, demanding money and knocking on the roof of the car and against the windows way harder and more insistently than a friendly carnival custom would warrant. A little later, walking up to the terrace of the café on the corner of rue St John Perse and Quai Layrie Lardenoy where I now am, I stopped to listen for a while to a local street band playing, but when I wanted to take a picture two sturdy fellows popped up in front of me demanding money for the privilege and again it did not feel like a convivial invitation to donate. Admittedly minor incidents, but still setting the tone.
‘Qu‘est que vous foutez ici? Guadeloupe est à nous, pas à vous, vous êtes raciste!’, the woman is back again, still angry tries to enlist another black guy and a black woman sitting in the middle of the stream of shoppers with her wares. She motions the white woman to stay back when the latter makes to shoo the angry woman away again, I am not certain though whom she aims to protect, the angry black one or the charging white one.
“What was that all about?”, I ask the waitress when I go inside to pay my bill. “It is the begging and soliciting”, she tells me, “on busy Saturdays like this, beggars are constantly pestering people on the terrace for money or cigarettes and I just try to keep them from bothering our customers“. I sympathise with that approach since I also am not too keen on being accosted regularly for money when I am having a coffee and enjoying reading a normal newspaper again.
“Things have changed a lot since the strikes two years ago”, she says and goes on to explains that since that period it seems as if the Guadeloupians (the black/mixed population descending from the imported slaves and original inhabitants of the islands) are much more strident, immediately seizing on any minor incident and resorting to accusations of racism even when that patently has nothing to do with it. ‘Anyone bothering our patrons would be chased away, whatever their colour‘, she insists. I do not doubt her on that note, the fact remains however that the beggars in Point-à-Pitre are all black.
How different the island felt when I arrived. From the airport, just outside Point-à-Pitre, I had driven through the dense Friday afternoon traffic to Delhaies on the Basse-Terre part of Guadeloupe, over roads and through villages that were indistinguishable from what you would find in France. The same roundabouts and road signs, the same Casino, Carrefour and Leader Price supermarkets, the same PMU betting shops, Le Monde and Le Figaro at the news stand, NRJ, France Inter and Chérie FM on the car radio. In a sense it felt like arriving in Puerto Rico, which is also destination where you can almost physically relax coming back to a familiar, well organised and safe environment; the difference with Guadeloupe being however that in Puerto Rico cars are all big and American and here on Guadeloupe cars are all small and French.
I look up from the form I am filling out and look at her badge, ‘Emma’, it says, before I answer her question: “No I am Dutch not Swedish, but my great-great-grand father Per August Gustafsson emigrated from Sweden in 1870”. “We have a new director who is Dutch”, she says, apparently on a different track now. ”Oh they are terrible bosses, you know that, don’t you”, I joke, but I actually think that as a Dutchman he will have some adapting to do to fit into the French management culture. While I straighten out a booking problem with Emma’s supervisor, she steps back. I had booked for three nights in the Langley resort, not because I wanted a resort, but because it was the best deal around, then discovered I had booked the wrong dates and had booked three nights again for the right dates. In the meantime I had decided to stay four nights and wanted to use the down payment of the wrong booking against the balance I still had to pay.
’You should take it up with the hotel’, the ’Hostelbookers’ website people had e-mailed me, when I asked for a reimbursement and I showed that e-mail to the supervisor. ‘Did they now’, he comments with some irony, because it turns out that the down payment is what the Hostelbookers people keep themselves and by pointing me towards the hotel it would be the hotel that would then bear the cost of reimbursing me for the money Hostelbookers kept. But since I have now decided to stay four nights, he is kind enough to take the down payment off the fourth night.
“Hallo ik ben Léon Raaijmakers”, a smiling skinny guy in casual jeans comes out of a little hallway leading to the offices and walks up to the desk to shake my hand and introduce himself. “You are the first Dutch guest here”. Well, there you go. “You must be the new Dutch manager..?, director..?”. He is the director and I don’t need to worry about him having the same difficulties to adapt to the French management culture as I had fifteen years ago, not only because he has previously worked for a French company, but even more so because the Langley Fort Royal resort is Swedish owned, has 50% French and 50% Scandinavian guests and works with mostly Swedish students and locals as staff. Now the penny drops, ‘Emma had wanted to know if I was Swedish, because she is Swedish herself’. Later over the buffet dinner I note that the atmosphere with the mix of Nordic and French guests and the students as enthusiastic, if not very experienced, serving staff is pleasantly relaxed. I should fit-in here: a Dutchman of Swedish descent, living in Paris, visiting a French island and staying in a Swedish resort run by a Dutchman.
That was yesterday.
[Swedish ancestry, Dutch identity and French mentality. How to fit in all these strands vying for attention. I’ll start with the French mentality part, the bulk, and weave the other two strands through where they connect. At the end they come together again, I think (P.S. 1)]
High prices sparked a general strike on Guadeloupe on January 20th 2010 and spread to Martinique two weeks later. The harbour and the airport were blocked by barricades and gradually the strike against high prices turned into a slow burning revolution with roads blocked all over the islands, shops looted, cars burned, shots fired and one person killed at a barricade. Gradually the protests got racial and took on independence overtones with ‘Guadeloupe c‘est à nous‘ slogans. After a few weeks the situation became critical with power and water cuts, empty shops, closed petrol stations paralysing economic and social life and wiping out an entire tourist season. Early March a €200 general wage increase, fixed low prices for basic foodstuffs and other important demands were met and the strikes ended.
Over the years I have travelled quite a few of the French overseas possessions (La Réunion 1997, French Guyana [and next door former Dutch colony Surinam] 1998, Nouvelle-Calédonie 2011) and now St Martin, Guadeloupe and Martinique and basically the pattern is the same.
France wants to hold on to its overseas possessions, preferably as a DOM-TOM (departments/territoires d‘outre mer), which makes them an integral part of France, but it will give greater autonomy and a special status if pressed, but independence is out of the question. As a consequence quite a lot is invested in infrastructure, economic and social programmes, education and healthcare. Also governing and security-related services are kept at a high level, comparable to that in France itself. This makes these former colonies far more developed in comparison with the former Dutch and English ones. Local minorities demanding greater autonomy or independence do exist, but even more important in my view is the general sense of entitlement to exactly the same conditions of life as exist in France. The French government is expected to provide this, never mind the cost and never mind one’s own contribution. Since unemployment and price levels are still very high (Guadeloupe and Martinique have the highest in the EU), there is an almost palpable feeling of disgruntlement and malaise, with a very prickly edge because it runs along racial lines.
Guadeloupe looks a bit like a butterfly with two wings spreading out, the right wing is Grande Terre and the left wing Basse Terre, both curious misnomers, since Grande Terre is the smaller and flatter one of the two, and Basse Terre is the bigger, mountainous one, with the 1464 m high Soufrière volcano as its peak. Cutting my visit to Point-à-Pitre shorter than I had planned, I continue my tour of Grande Terre, have lunch in one of the restaurants at the marina in Saint François (with quite a few empty spots where businesses have closed down) and end up in Port Louis: ‘A quiet backwater of a fishing hamlet with immaculate wooden colonial houses and atmospheric antique street lights’, my guide book says, and quiet it is. I also find the antique street lights. The colonial houses are more difficult to locate, but the Hôtel de Ville also looks nice. A as I walk past it, I notice that it’s freshly painted walls are sprayed with graffiti that clearly are in protest at something: ‘PANI DLO‘, ‘PANI LAJAN‘, ‘PANI LIMYE’ and ‘KOMIN A VOLO’, they read in Creole and I wonder what that means.
A little bit further in the small fishing harbour, next to a lone fisherman selling his catch to three French women (who discuss in this inimitable French way the details of preparing and savouring their fish), another sprayed wall: '21 OKTOB 1801'; a new entry on my list, find out what happened on that date.
“Emma, I have two questions for you”, walking past the lobby after I get back and see she is on duty and use the opportunity. “Which island in the Caribbean was once a Swedish colony?” She actually knows one was, she is already doing better than I did before I came across this nugget of information an hour ago, but with ‘Antigua’ she guesses the wrong one. “It was St Barthélemy, better known as St Barts“, I fill her in. Now it is French, but for almost a hundred years it was one of the very few Swedish colonial possessions; Guadeloupe itself surprisingly enough being another one of them, be it only for one year.
“I heard you talk Dutch with Léon the other day”, she mentions, “sounded funny, but I could understand a little bit of what you guys said. Do you also speak Swedish?“. “Not really“, I answer, “not beyond the first ten minutes after the end of an Ingrid Bergman film”. That actually was quite some years ago, when the Kriterion art house movie theatre in Rotterdam used to screen films like ‘Jungfrukällan’ (The Virgin Spring) and ‘Smulstronstället’ (Wild Strawberries). When you got out, you still had the melody of the language singing in your head and over a beer in pub ‘Het Pandje’ we used to pretend we were fluent, but then in a ‘Swedish-chef’ type of way. “I have been to the place where Per August Gustafsson lived with his parents before he emigrated“, I tell her, “it is some 15 kilometres south of Varberg on the west coast of Halland province. A tiny hamlet really, Tvaaker“. She lives in Gothenburg, so she knows about Varberg, but has never heard of Tvaaker.
The news that somebody from the Netherlands was looking for his ancestors, had spread like wildfire (It is 1972 and we are helped out with the Swedish language by Lennart and Kristin from Tollered near Gothenburg, whom we had befriended the year before while camping in the Dordogne). The Gustafssons had been poor farmers, leasing land when they could and when we called on farmhouses where they might have lived, people invited us in and had already prepared what they could tell us. The local notary, who keeps track of land transactions, also had already made the trip to Varberg to look up documents in the archives, before we even knew of his existence. The population registry was kept in the ‘Kyrkböckerna‘, (Church registers) in those days and now only available from the ‘Landsarchivet’ in Lund. It was quite a heart warming experience and though only one red wooden shed had survived from the 1870s, it still, in a way, provided a physical link with my past.
‘Time for my second question‘, I interrupt my own reminiscing: “Would one of your colleagues be able to help me translate a few words of Creole“. None of them is around at the reception desk, but she knows that there must be some in the restaurant.
It turns out to be more straightforward than I had anticipated, phonetic French really:
PANI DLO: je n‘ai pas de l‘eau; I have no water. PANI LAJAN: je n‘ai pas d‘argent; I have no money. PANI LIMYE: je n’ai pas de lumière; I have no light, with the first one likely referring to living in a shack without running water and electricity. KOMIN A VOLO: la commune est un voleur; the municipality is stealing from me
Taken together they seem very much to express the entitlement sense: ‘I have a right to these things and if I don’t have them, the authorities are to blame’.
Léon pops by when I have dinner that night and ends up telling me about his career so far: general-manager of the Amsterdam American Hotel (whose Café Americain was for decades the place to be seen for the Dutch literati), and several hotels of the Intercontinental and other international chains.
“So in your early fourties you thought it was time to cash-in on your experience then”, I tease him a bit, but only a bit, because I am sure that coming from an internationally renowned hotel chain, he did not go to the Langley Fort Royal Resort for the Caribbean climate alone. He is 41 he admits and seems slightly surprised at my accurate guess (he doesn’t know of course that I have a son of 41, who looks exactly as boyish as he does and, by the way, is also hoping to cash-in as director of the company he is involved in. Only the six year old son does not match, yet, we will see where we are in six, seven years). Indeed after working for many years in the centrally-regimented American chains, he is happy to be able to put his own stamp on things for a change. “I can stay here the rest of my career”, he says smiling with that boyish confidence. But there I have to disagree with him, you always think that when you have just started, but it never works out that way.
“…and if you walk along the wall, you will see the underground tunnel where Louis Delgrès and some 400 others escaped the French army that was attacking them”. When the man tells me this the next day as an introduction to my visit of Fort Louis Delgrès in the former capital Basse Terre on the Basse Terre part of Guadeloupe, I have no clue yet what story he is referring to, but it turns out to be the answer to my remaining open question: the ‘21 OKTOB 1801’ sign on the wall.
Soon after the French revolution, in 1794, in the spirit of that revolution slavery is abolished on the French Caribbean islands and a period of turbulence and war with England over the islands ensues. When Napoleon aims to reoccupy the islands and plans to re-establish slavery, an uprising of the former slave population erupts on the 21st of October 1801, led by the experienced coloured captain Louis Delgrès. Seeing that in the face of superior French troops they will not be able to hold their last stand, (then) Fort Saint-Charles in Basse Terre, Louis Delgrès and 400 of his men manage to escape during the night. They withdraw to the high ground, where they entice the French army into battle and, aiming to take as many French soldiers with them as they can, in a last gesture of desperation Louis Delgrès and his men commit collective suicide by igniting their gunpowder supplies.
With this as the background to the '21 OKTOB 1801' graffiti, it is not too far-fetched to assume that it is meant to be anti French and a likely allusion to independence of the island.
“But what you should not forget is that the economy of Martinique is in the hands of 40 families, 40 béké families. They control the prices”. André is explaining this to me and his southern French accent makes it not always easy for me to follow him, but this message is clear and it is an aspect of the situation that I was not yet aware of. “What is ‘béké‘?”, I ask. It is the slightly pejorative name for the former plantation owners, the ‘shon‘ from Curaçao, and they have managed to stay in control even after the end of slavery. Not only on Martinique, André goes on to explain, the Martinique béké also are in control on Guadeloupe. André and Maryse are the French couple who own the Villa St Pierre Hotel in St Pierre on Martinique and I have asked them how the strikes affected Martinique and how they see the political and racial situation today.
I had always assumed that demands that the government intervene in prices in grocery shops are pretty pointless. Governments have little means or business to do that effectively, it is competition that should take care of that, but if indeed there is a tacit collusion among an oligarchy of white families who control the island’s economy, the strikes against high prices had a real point and it would also mean that the racial aspect had more to it than just prejudices and emotions.
“The people here don’t know the difference between ‘service’ and ‘servitude‘”, André goes on. “In Dominique, they are poor, but they overcame that attitude“. I had introduced Dominica as an example of an island that had become independent, but was now suffering from bad governance and poverty. André sees it from a different angle. When the UK granted Dominica independence in 1978, they took with them what they could, and destroyed the rest. So the Dominicans realised that they had to start from scratch. Through that process of standing on their own feet, the former slavery sentiments do not play a significant role anymore. Not so on the French islands. There it is still an open nerve and, he illustrates, if I have a conflict with my neighbour over something mundane, the race card is immediately out on the table.
Maryse has mostly been listening and agreeing with what is being said. From her demeanour I can tell she is very concerned and now she adds her view: “Women will have two or three children by different men and live off their ‘allocation familiale’, that, together with a plot of land and a brother who is a fisherman, is enough“, she explains. “What we are also very worried about is the children themselves. They never see their parents working. What kind of an example is that? To make matters worse, drugs are coming in, even here in St Pierre“.
This now is a recurrent theme, the Caribbean lifestyle and the attitude towards work.
It is at the heart of the conviction of quite a group of Dutch politicians who would rather have ended the relationship with the Netherlands Antilles (NA) islands entirely, than give them the option of integration in the Netherlands proper or continuation as a separate country within the Kingdom. They were also not amused that, to boot, the Netherlands had to take over the €1.2 billion debt the NA had amassed, testimony to the disastrous financial management in Willemstad over the years, in order to give the newly independent countries a financially healthy start.
‘’Do you think Curaçao should become independent?”, I ask my waiter cum diver at the Playa Forti restaurant when he serves the dragon fish he had harpooned himself earlier that day. “Yes”, he says, “I think we should become independent“. Then after a few seconds he adds: “but only when the people here turn up for work on time and do not leave before it is done“. I had to smile of course, since if that were the case these Dutch politicians would immediately welcome them back, but I don‘t think he meant it ironically, it was more of an afterthought. He goes on to show me his diver‘s watch, a special one, that keeps track of his underwater hours for a year. “Look”, he holds it in front of me so I can see for myself, “I have been underwater diving 503 hours over the last 365 days”. I nod suitably impressed, I have no clue of course as to what that means in terms of total working hours, but it is clear that in his view that represents a lot more hard work than his neighbours have done in that same year.
“They are naturally lazy, you know”. We happen to be standing next to each other in a long line at the Puerto Rican border check at the airport, watching the officials taking an inordinate amount of time to check whatever they have to check. I look at him, he does not look particularly racist or anything. “ I know”, he continues, “I was born here, but I work in the States”. I nod silently, noting that he apparently has worked in the States long enough to speak of ‘they‘, rather than ‘we‘. “Why do they let these people in ahead of the queue?”. Now I am annoyed, because people jumping the queue is the kind of thing that gets me very agitated. He looks at me: “When they get into a uniform they can get very power drunk“, he warns. Maybe he sensed that I can act impulsively in circumstances like this. (I stepped in front of two Russian guys jumping the registration queue in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel two days earlier. Luckily it worked out OK, and the American couple that was first in line thanked me for it, but blocking two Russians, that was rash). “I know, I know”, I agree…(P.S.2).
While it is clear that there are differences in mentality and lifestyle between Europe and the Caribbean, it is not easy to determine where factual differences end and prejudices begin. What we however should not be surprised about is this: If you transplant a European style welfare state arrangement (and the French one is a well developed specimen), aiming to provide a social safety net for its citizens, from its natural habitat of assumptions of mentality and lifestyle, to the Caribbean, with an entirely different set of assumptions, it is bound not to be used as a safety net, but as a way of life. If you then adapt its provisions in order to maintain its intended functionality, which in practice means reducing the social payments, you fall foul of that other promise that is extended: the one of equal citizenship rights. Cutting payments is interpreted as a denial of those rights and in the context not taken as functional discrimination but as racist discrimination. (It happened in exactly the same way on Bonaire, Saba and St Eustatius when they became Dutch territories on 10-10-10.)
Something that also should be clear is that we are not talking about absolute differences, but gradual ones. The same Frenchmen and women who will condemn the misuse of ‘prestations sociales’ by lazy Caribbeans, are themselves at the receiving end of a similar debate that is now raging in Europe in the context of the financial crisis. Here it is the ‘Mediterranean lifestyle’ of the southern countries which is at fault, with its long lunches, short workweek and early retirement (Hollande has promised to leave the French 35 hour working week alone and restore retirement at 60: not a good prospect. Sarkozy has just squandered five years not doing what he had promised to do about the unpaid bills of the French welfare state: also not a good prospect. Bayrou maybe?)
(Continued in the next entry)