50 years on: Guadeloupeans remember French brutality

Guadeloupeans who survived the deadly crackdown of May 1967 describe the legacy of distrust of the French state.

Guadeloupe feature
On the May 26, 1967, Jacques Jarvis saw young men collecting conch shells to throw at the police; he survived police killings by hiding in an empty grave [Susannah Savage/Al Jazeera]

Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe – “Without warning, they shot me. I fell to the ground and played dead.”

It was May 26, 1967. Solange Coudrieux, a Guadeloupean teacher, was on his way home when he got caught up in a protest in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe’s capital. Coudrieux was one of the many Guadeloupeans to be shot by French police that day.

“There was no curfew in place, no warning before they pulled the trigger,” he says now, 50 years later, sitting on his terrace just outside Pointe-a-Pitre.

“They shot me from behind. In the right leg. I say the right leg because it was intentional. They took my right leg, like they cut the right leg from our enslaved ancestors who tried to run away.”

The protest began on May 24, when construction workers in Point-a-Pitre went on strike asking for a wage increase of two percent. By the morning of the 26th, their boss, Georges Brizard, agreed to meet union leaders, and Guadeloupe’s governor, Pierre Bolotte, to discuss the pay rise.

The striking workers, joined by high-school students among others, were gathered outside the chamber of commerce, where the meeting was taking place, when a rumour spread through the crowd that Brizard had said “the negroes will come back to work when they’re hungry”.

When he left the building, escorted by the CRS (French riot police), the protesters vented their anger. Just a few minutes later, orders were given for the police to shoot at “anyone moving”.

Racial tensions

A former slave colony, the Caribbean islands making up Guadeloupe had become an overseas department of France, which it still is, just 20 years earlier.

In 1967, racial inequality was still rife: the white minority held on to most economic, and often political, power while the black majority laboured in sugarcane fields, or, increasingly, in factories and on building sites.

Solange Coudrieux, right, was one of many Guadeloupeans to be shot by French police on May 26, 1967. Fifty years on, he and his wife Josselyne, among many others in Guadeloupe, are still waiting for France to officially acknowledge the government's role in the brutality that took place [Finbar Anderson/Al Jazeera]
Solange Coudrieux, right, was one of many Guadeloupeans to be shot by French police on May 26, 1967. Fifty years on, he and his wife Josselyne, among many others in Guadeloupe, are still waiting for France to officially acknowledge the government’s role in the brutality that took place [Finbar Anderson/Al Jazeera]
“Back then, Pointe-a-Pitre was divided in two,” says Jacques Jarvis, who is in his late 60s. “On one side of the boulevard, there were the wealthy whites and on the other, a shanty town full of black workers, living in shacks with tin roofs.”

Pointing his finger sternly he adds, “don’t forget there was no state help then. It wasn’t like it is today.”

Tensions between the French state and the people of Guadeloupe had boiled over before.

During a sugar-worker strike in Le Moule in 1952, police fired on protesters. Ken Kelly, a member of the Guadeloupean independence movement who was a 12-year-old boy at the time, remembers standing in his backyard in the town centre hearing bullets whistle past his head. “I was terrified,” he says.

In the run-up to May 1967, relations were particularly strained. In March, protests broke out in Guadeloupe’s former capital, Basse-Terre, following a racist incident involving an old black cobbler and a white shopkeeper.

Vladimir Snrsky, a European immigrant, reportedly set his dog on Raphael Balzinc, the cobbler, who was sitting outside Snrsky’s shoe shop. Although reports suggest the dog did not attack Balzinc, who was disabled, Snrsky was heard encouraging the dog: “Say hello to the Negro.” Passersby were drawn to the scene, and the incident evolved into a riot. Snrsky hid on his balcony and was later rescued by police, while angry protesters pushed both his and his wife’s cars into the sea.

Fred Demetrius, who was a child at the time, remembers his older brother rushing in and out of their Basse-Terre home “full of excitement”. Fifty years later, standing just a few streets away from where the incident took place, Demetrius recalls how his brother, among others, broke into the shoe shop “not for money”, but because they were so angry. “They didn’t steal anything. They took all the notes from the cash register and tore them up,” Demetrius says.

Following the unrest in Basse-Terre, Pierre Bolotte, who had earned himself a fearful reputation during Algeria’s War of Independence, showed similar severity in Guadeloupe when he called in reinforcements from mainland France.

He decided then he was going to “rid Guadeloupe of communists and independentists by force,” Kelly says. “He was just waiting for the opportunity.”

‘It wasn’t an ordinary bullet’

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“I was neither communist nor revolutionary,” says Coudrieux, clutching his stump. “I was a sports teacher.”

I saw my leg torn to pieces. There was no curfew in place, no warning before they shot, nothing.

by Solange Coudrieux, victim of the May 1967 police crackdown

Coudrieux was acting as an examiner in another school on the morning of the 26th. On his way home, he picked up his wife and stopped in Pointe-a-Pitre to collect a present for his mother.

“The shops were all closed. It annoyed me a bit even. I was told there was a strike, brought about by the construction workers. I went and dropped my wife at her parents before going once more around the town on foot to find a shop that was open.”

“When I came to the Place de la Victoire there was a large crowd. Strikes were normal back then, but this was out of the ordinary. There were so many people, running everywhere. They told me the army had shot at the crowd, but me, I fought in the war in Algeria with the French army: I couldn’t believe the army would just shoot at people like that.”

One of the first people to be shot and killed that day was Jacques Nestor, who was believed to be a member of GONG, a clandestine movement for Guadeloupean independence.

News of his death brought yet more young Guadeloupians out onto the streets in anger. Coudrieux says he later discovered the French police, backed up by the army, had been told to put Pointe-a-Pitre “in a state of war”.

By 6pm that day, though, Coudrieux thought it was over. “Calm is restored in Pointe-a-Pitre,” he says they announced on the radio. “But this was a trap.”

Fred Demetrius was a child in 1967, but says it's important that
Fred Demetrius was a child in 1967, but says it’s important that “young people in Guadeloupe realise this is our history” [Finbar Anderson/Al Jazeera]

Believing it was safe, Coudrieux set out to walk to the town hall to ask what route he could take to get back to his home in another town. “I saw two cars burning in the street, and next to them I remember passing a man. By the time I could see the town hall, I realised there was no one there so I turned around.”

Walking back, though, Coudrieux came across a group of police officers. “I thought they must be returning to the station, so I continued,” he says. “That’s when I heard the first gunshot.” He would later learn that that bullet hit and killed the man he had seen moments before.

“A few seconds later, I heard a second gunshot,” Coudrieux says miming a gun being fired. “I felt myself lift up and then fall to the ground. I saw my leg torn to pieces. There was no curfew in place, no warning before they shot, nothing.”

“I held my leg, in agony, and played dead. I kept thinking If I move or cry out they’ll certainly shoot me.”

Coudrieux says he recalled his French military training: “I could feel my heart pounding and so I tried to control my breathing.”

“Once they’d left, I started to shout to the people I could see at the end of the street ‘come and get me, don’t let me die’.” But the people watching him were too scared. “They had seen too many people injured or killed by the armed forces to risk coming to help me,” he explains with a shrug.

“Eventually, I managed to drag myself into the shadows. At that moment, a man arrived and took me in his arms. I didn’t know who that man was. But he saved me.”

His wife, Josselyne, was waiting at the hospital by the time he arrived. She still recalls the incident with emotion: “The ambulance driver was shaking with fear, he told me they were shooting at him even, shooting at an ambulance!” 

Two days later, her husband had his leg amputated above the knee. “It wasn’t just an ordinary bullet, you see,” she explains, “it was a dum-dum” which is a type of bullet designed to expand on impact, shattering whatever it hits.

“These are banned by The Hague Convention; they’re not allowed in any war, but France used them on its own citizens.”

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‘This was our revolution’

Jarvis, who was 18 years old and working as a courier at the time, was delivering documents when he heard the French police were shooting at the crowds.

Pointe-a-Pitre became like a war zone ... I remember hearing gunshot after gunshot

by Jacques Jarvis, victim of police brutality

“‘They’ve killed Jacques Nestor, they’ve killed Jacques Nestor,’ that’s what everyone was saying,” he says animatedly, before pausing for a moment to sip his coffee. Looking around the cafe we’re sitting in, he adds in a lower voice, “I’m certain [the French state] targeted him. He was a member of GONG.”

On returning to the office, his boss let everyone leave early and instructed them to go to their homes. Jacques, however, headed to the Place de la Victoire. There, he found young men and boys building pyramids of conch shells to throw at the police.

“Those were their weapons,” he sighs, “shells, shells against bullets.”

“Pointe-a-Pitre became like a war zone,” Jarvis says, describing how police and soldiers drove through the streets on army jeeps, chasing down anyone they came across. “I remember hearing gunshot after gunshot.”

At one point, after dark had set in, he ran into a group of police officers. “I tried to get away, I ended up running into the cemetery,” he says, tracing his route with his finger on the table in front of him. “Fate was on my side that day. There was a dug-out grave that ought to have been filled but it was left open. I fell inside it.”

“I didn’t understand at first that I’d been shot. I thought that I had broken my arm falling into the grave. But then I realised it was a bullet.”

The bullet hadn’t penetrated his arm, but ricocheted off the bone. “I could hear the voices of the police officers, not Guadeloupean voices, but mainland French. They were saying ‘Where is he? Where has he gone?’

“I wasn’t afraid though,” Jarvis adds proudly, “I was thinking about Che Guevara, about Fidel Castro … this was our revolution. I was happy to be there.”

He eventually escaped from the cemetery but didn’t return home. “I couldn’t,” he exclaims, raising his arms in exasperation, “I couldn’t turn up at my mother’s house looking like that, covered in mud and blood.”

In the street, he came across a man who had been shot. “He was crying out ‘take me home, take me home’ but I didn’t know where his home was,” Jarvis says. “I dragged him to the hospital, instead. But when we arrived, they told me he was already dead.”

At the hospital, a nurse cleaned Jarvis up and gave him fresh clothes. “I waited until morning to go home, though,” he says. “The shots from the police’s guns went off throughout the whole night.”

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‘We will keep pushing for justice’ 

Reinforcements from the army and the police forces were parachuted into Pointe-a-Pitre that night.

The following day saw more protests as others descended on the city to rally against police oppression. There were mass arrests, the French state using the protest and ensuing violence as a pretext to launch a wide-scale crackdown.

Upon his release from prison in 1968, Ken Kelly returned to Guadeloupe where he continues to fight for independence [Finbar Anderson/Al Jazeera]
Upon his release from prison in 1968, Ken Kelly returned to Guadeloupe where he continues to fight for independence [Finbar Anderson/Al Jazeera]

Kelly, who was a member of GONG, was in Paris in May 1967. Now, sitting in his living room just outside the capital, he seems almost cheerful as he describes the moment the police came knocking on his door.

“It was July 1967, I was arrested for crimes against the state,” he laughs. “Prison was not so bad, though. All the political prisoners were put together.” He adds nostalgically, “we went on hunger strike at one point”.

The trial lasted until March 1968, but the state was unable to prove GONG was responsible for the events of May 1967 and Kelly, along with the rest of his GONG comrades, was released. Shortly afterwards, he returned to Guadeloupe, where today he continues to fight for independence.

Unlike Kelly, Coudrieux wasn’t interested in politics before 1967. “I certainly didn’t think about independence,” he says. But May 1967 changed that. “France betrayed me,” he exclaims bitterly, clenching his fist. “Since then, I have not considered myself French.”

Coudrieux says “of course” he felt the racism in Guadeloupe before May 1967 but it was only as a result of it that he realised “as blacks, we really are considered second-class citizens.”

In particular, the events of that May made him deeply mistrustful of the police – as they did many Guadeloupeans. For years afterwards, few people in Guadeloupe who witnessed what had happened dared to speak of it. “No one trusted the police. Particularly my parents’ generation were terrified of repercussions,” Jarvis says. “My mother destroyed all the evidence that I had been involved even.”

Some 50 years later, this is changing – slowly. Of the diminishing number of survivors, many are still reluctant to discuss their experience, and many Guadeloupians still distrust the French state and the police in particular. Nonetheless, there are growing efforts to raise awareness about the events of May 1967.

“Me 67” (as it is called in Creole) was the theme of this year’s carnival parades across the island. Akiyo and Voukoum, two Guadeloupean cultural organisations, also held events commemorating May 1967 last month. “It is important young people in Guadeloupe realise this is our history,” says Fred Demetrius, a leading member of Voukoum.

Waiting for acknowledgment

On the cusp of his 80th birthday, Coudrieux, like many others in Guadeloupe, is still waiting for France to officially acknowledge the government’s role in the brutality, including the numbers killed by police fire: while the official record holds that seven were killed, most other estimates put the figure at closer to 100.

Grace Carrington, a post-colonial researcher at the London School of Economics who specialises in Guadeloupe, says that there has been no official government apology or acknowledgement.

An independent enquiry set up in 2014 by the Ministre des Outre-mer (the overseas ministry), investigated the events of 1967 and last year concluded that due to the lack of evidence, it was impossible to ascertain the number of people who died, Carrington said over email.

“Crucially, the report acknowledged the events of May 67 as ‘a massacre during a demonstration, knowingly ordered on the ground, and approved by the government under the presidency of General de Gaulle’,” she said.

The events of 1967 are linked to the Algerian War and many colonial structures, such as the police institutions that were present in Algeria were likewise installed in Guadeloupe, according to Carrington.

Many Guadeloupeans were called up to fight for France in Algeria and were greatly affected by their experiences,” she said

During the crackdown, “according to eyewitness accounts, the attitudes of law enforcement officers and those in positions of authority were similar to colonial attitudes towards Algerians prevalent during the Algerian War.”

“Unfortunately,” says Carrington, the intelligence police reports from 1967, initially classified for 50 years, that “could have given us a greater understanding”were mandated – on the eve of the half century anniversary of the brutality – to remain closed for another 25 years. 

“Many activists and historians have called for these archives to be opened to allow a full understanding of government involvement in the events,” she said.

For Coudrieux and others, however, distrust in the state prevails.

“The true witnesses are dead, and they [the state] have already made the papers, the evidence, disappear,” Coudrieux says solemnly. “But we will keep pushing for justice. Always.”

Source: Al Jazeera