Workers Vanguard No. 960

4 June 2010


For the Right of Independence!

Colonial Referendum in Martinique and French Guiana

The following article is translated from Le Bolchévik No. 191 (March 2010), newspaper of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, section of the International Communist League.

Referendums were held on January 10 in the colonies of Martinique and French Guiana. The purpose was to promise greater autonomy under the terms of Article 74 of the French Constitution. The French state organized this referendum in order to promote a “renewed relationship with metropolitan France,” as French president Sarkozy put it. A large majority in both countries voted “no,” with just over half the registered voters participating.

The plebiscite had been announced in the wake of last year’s protracted general strikes in Martinique and Guadeloupe, which targeted the main capitalist exploiters (in many cases the “békés,” descendants of the former slaveholders) and the French state, including its local satraps. The primary aim of the strikes was to ease the growing poverty and racist oppression of the majority of the population of these colonies. They exposed before the eyes of the world the hypocrisy of the French bourgeoisie, which veils its imperialist greed behind speeches about “human rights.” These strikes showed once again, especially to the multiethnic proletariat in France, that hard class battles must be waged to resist the capitalists’ attacks and repression. This was the context for Sarkozy’s referendum on autonomy, the purpose of which was to refurbish French imperialism while trying to sidetrack what remains of the militant struggle into colonial legal double-talk.

If a “yes” vote had won, it would have been followed by years of negotiations between the French state and its political agents in the Caribbean in order to work out a law which would make a few adjustments to the administrative regulations. Then this law would have been submitted to the French parliament. Among the possible new “powers” would be things like having anthems and flags, along with greater powers of local taxation, more control of public-sector hiring (in other words, Martiniquan jobs for Martiniquans) and a few additional measures regarding the economy and the environment. Decisions relating to state power (the courts, the police, defense, currency, etc.) would remain in Paris. Announcing the referendum, Sarkozy played the little Bonaparte, declaring: “As long as I am president of the Republic, the question of Martinique’s independence will not be posed.” And “Martinique is French and will remain so.”

Participation in the voting was relatively high for a vote of this sort, but 45 percent of registered voters still gave it a miss. Many people expressed the fear, which is more acute than ever in this period of economic crisis and high unemployment, that if the referendum passed it could mean the loss of French colonial status and European Union membership, and thus the loss of remaining social gains, forcing the majority of the population into even greater poverty. The media also reported on some Martiniquan workers who rejected the referendum, saying that it had nothing to do with their daily struggle to survive—they knew very well that the nationalist and social-democratic politicians who advocated a yes vote just wanted a greater say in how to exploit the workers. As we wrote in Le Bolchévik [see “French Caribbean Colonies Shaken by General Strikes,” WV No. 937, 22 May 2009]:

“Some leading nationalists in both Guadeloupe and Martinique often express their desire for the transfer of much of the state administration to a locally run body which could slash social benefits. According to the nationalists, these benefits make their agriculture and tourism uncompetitive against other Caribbean islands. But right now the nationalists are not emphasizing the struggle for independence—their program is rather to grab for themselves the profits from colonial exploitation which for centuries have been pocketed by the békés.”

The question posed by the January 10 referendum was whether one was for or against an empty shell—i.e., greater so-called “autonomy.” The position of the LTF was for abstention. We were also against voting yes or no in the plebiscite that followed two weeks later, where it was a question of deciding for or against a fusion of the regional councils and general councils in Martinique and in French Guiana. None of these referendums offered anything positive to the working class.

Our starting point is defense of the right of self-determination for the French colonies. As intransigent opponents of French colonialism, which in the Caribbean was based on slavery, we would be in favor of independence. But we are against any forced independence, and we do not presently demand the immediate independence of Martinique, French Guiana or other colonies, notably because today the vast majority of the population there is against it: they fully understand that following independence under capitalism, the imperialist oppressors would try to reduce their standards of living even further.

This is why proletarian internationalism and the fight for socialist revolution in the U.S., France and other advanced capitalist countries must be the basis of our program to end colonial oppression and exploitation in the French colonies once and for all. This is all the more important given the small size of the proletariat in the French Caribbean (which is essentially employed in construction and in basic services such as transportation and trash removal; there is also a thin layer of agricultural workers on the plantations). The social power of the proletariat from Guadeloupe and Martinique is mainly to be found in France; this émigré proletariat represents a living link for socialist revolution in France and the Caribbean.

Our position on the national question stands in the revolutionary tradition of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. For the Bolsheviks, federation and autonomy fundamentally accept continued colonial capitalist domination. Lenin said: “A reformist change is one which leaves intact the foundations of the power of the ruling class and is merely a concession leaving its power unimpaired. A revolutionary change undermines the foundations of power. A reformist national programme does not abolish all the privileges of the ruling nation; it does not establish complete equality; it does not abolish national oppression in all its forms. An ‘autonomous’ nation does not enjoy rights equal to those of the ‘ruling’ nation” (“The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up”). Lenin wrote, also in 1916: “The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation from the oppressor nation” (“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination—Theses”).

Combat Ouvrier Gives “Left” Proletarian Cover to Nationalists

The Marxist position has nothing to do with capitulation to nationalism or with the crass reformism of Combat Ouvrier (CO), Lutte Ouvrière’s fraternal group in Martinique. CO admitted the obvious when it wrote in its 19 December editorial that “for this referendum campaign, what is striking is that they [the politicians of Martinique] did not commit themselves to anything at all; they did not even pretend to promise anything! This shows that tomorrow they really intend to administer the new status solely in the interests of those who own and run Martinique!” But barely a few lines further on, CO is implicitly supporting a yes vote in the January 10 referendum! On what basis? They claim that the workers and poor (who apparently, unlike CO, don’t understand anything) were supposedly for greater autonomy under Article 74; so in solidarity with these toilers, CO went along with a yes vote. They argue further that this measure would allow “us” to put more effective pressure on the local bourgeois executive and to obtain decisions which are “in favor of the toiling and poor layers”:

“However, if some form of local power is created after the vote on Article 74 or 73 in the referendums of January 10 and 24, that would have the advantage for us of having close at hand all these politicians who are responsible for attacks against the workers and poor. The seat of that power will be closer and we will be able to go there when we want to hold them accountable.

“Therefore we members of Combat Ouvrier understand that some workers may want to see this change in Statute 74 passed and lead to a form of local power.…

“Therefore we feel in solidarity with the workers who want to vote in favor of the birth of this form of local power.…

“From now on we have to realize that we will have to closely watch these politicians and other dignitaries in the exercise of that power and be ready to hold them accountable at any moment, so that as often as possible decisions are taken a little more in favor of the toiling and poor layers.”

What touching faith in the colonial state apparatus, the exploiters’ instrument for repressing the exploited! And this comes right after the brutal repression of the general strikes, as they are gearing up determinedly to take back the main gains of those struggles. CO’s position coincides with that of its Martiniquan partners in the February 5 Collective (K5F, the February 2009 general strike committee), which includes the CGTM union in which the influence of CO is well known. The president of K5F, Philippe Pierre-Charles, is the leader and founding member of the Socialist Revolution Group (GRS), which is associated with the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). The GRS openly called for voting for Article 74, but “without illusions”—in other words, voting for this colonial fraud while knowing perfectly well that it goes against the interests of the workers and poor. The support that Combat Ouvrier & Co. gave to the referendum charade served to give credence to Sarkozy’s “reforms” and his attempts to refurbish the image of French colonial domination.

Given the crushing defeat of the “yes” camp in the January 10 referendum, CO tried to distance itself from its initial position of “solidarity” with the imaginary workers who “may want to see this change in Statute 74 passed.” They claimed in a press release published in Lutte Ouvrière (but not in Combat Ouvrier) that “We of Combat Ouvrier gave no advice on how to vote, because we didn’t want to sanction the past, present and future actions of politicians who do not care about the interests and aspirations of the workers. This consultation was a phony choice!”

This capitulation to petty-bourgeois nationalism is nothing new for CO. In Guadeloupe they are part of the LKP [January-February 2009 general strike committee] in the name of “tous ensemble” (united struggle). This organization is a combative popular-frontist coalition, which includes the workers movement but also a whole series of petty-bourgeois nationalist and cultural organizations. At bottom, the LKP represents the program of bourgeois nationalism. Its popular-front nature is determined not only by the organizations that constitute it but also by its program. For example, many of the 149 demands the LKP put forward during last year’s strikes were supportable, including the demand for a raise of 200 euros per month for all low-paid and minimum-wage workers, as well as demands for a large-scale program of public housing construction and a real public transportation system. However, many other demands—such as giving preferential treatment to local capitalists over other capitalists (“priority and ease of access to the market and to public assistance for Guadeloupean businesses”)—underline the bourgeois-nationalist nature of the bloc, which addresses itself to “the people of Guadeloupe, workers, peasants, artisans, retirees, unemployed, businessmen, youth” (our emphasis).

In France the task of the revolutionary party is to mobilize the workers on the side of oppressed nations and for their right to self-determination. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, the crucial task is to break the hold of nationalist false consciousness. The fact that CO participates as the “far left” component in the LKP and the February 5 Collective goes precisely in the opposite direction: CO gives petty-bourgeois nationalism a left cover. In France LO uncritically applauds CO’s work in the LKP and K5F, and so on. But LO’s class collaboration in France is no less criminal—for example, calling on the working class to vote for the Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal in the 2007 elections (“without illusions,” of course) and participating in municipal councils to administer capitalist austerity at the local level alongside the Communist Party as well as ecologists, “alternative” candidates, supporters of Chevènement [a bourgeois politician] and others. Thus they are an obstacle to the class independence and revolutionary consciousness that are indispensable to the fight for socialist revolution and to putting an end to the colonial yoke and the heritage of slavery in the Caribbean.