Politics and Sexuality in the French Caribbean

In January 2009, led by a coalition of trade unions and community groups, a Lyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (Alliance Against Profiteering) began a general strike in Guadeloupe. Over 44 days they convened large community demonstrations, shut down schools and businesses, and brought activities on the island to a near halt. They were protesting la vie chère, or the high cost of goods and services that make life in Guadeloupe, a non-independent island of the French Caribbean, increasingly difficult for ordinarily people. Martinique shares the same political status as Guadeloupe, and the bone that strikers had to pick with the French state (and equally important, for Martinicans, with the white minority béké class that continues to control most of the commerce on their island) was shared by Martinican citizens. On 5 February that island, too, went on strike. Over 38 days cars were burned, businesses shuttered, and mobilized groups (both organized and not) clashed with the police in downtown Fort de France.
The unrest that rocked this island all of those months ago has left its traces both on the landscape and in the narratives that people tell me now, in the lull of this place’s summer quiet. In the streets of the city signs of political mobilization are everywhere visible: graffiti on the side of French mega-department store Galéries Lafayette calls for jistis kolonial (colonial justice); there are burn marks in the roads- traces of February’s garbage cans, cars, and barricades in flames; some businesses never re-opened their doors after incurring the losses of that time, and their windows remain broken and boarded up. Everyone I talk to is eager to tell me about the grève (strike)- about what they did during that time, about the iconic events and their conflicting experiences of them. Even corporate marketing bears the traces- billboards for a local supermarket sport a new tag line: Solidaires, Contre la Vie Chère! (In solidarity, against the expensive life).

Coming back to Martinique at this moment has left me thinking about the economic crisis and where my own work on sexual politics fits in this field. The café that has served as a haven for young gay men in Fort de France was hit hard during the strikes (windows broken, stock looted, closed for weeks), but its proprietors are still working to maintain their presence, however quiet, in the community. A number of my lesbian and gay interlocutors were involved in the political mobilizations- either as supporters of the strikers or detractors interested more in public order- and seem to be thinking much more seriously about their own political work these days. In anthropology, there are traditional ways to think about political economy and sexuality- by focusing on sex work, kinship networks, and neo/liberal family policy- but this trip is pushing me to think through other ways that these fields intersect, both in people’s lives and in the theories that we develop to understand them.

Vanessa Agard-Jones
PhD Candidate, Anthropology

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