Impressed by a violent revolt half a world away, the people of this Caribbean island with a Gallic accent have begun to confront a previously unthinkable idea: independence from France.
Leaders of a vocal and sometimes violent independence movement, watching events in the French-administered South Pacific island of New Caledonia, have pledged to organize strikes and demonstrations to force Paris to heed their demand, too. Noting that New Caledonian rebels extracted concessions from France in response to highly publicized violence, independence leaders here also have started to speak openly of making sure that Guadeloupians have arms so that they will not be "victims of colonial repression."
The French, as they always seem to, have an expression for it: la contagion.
Most young men here still appear more interested in topless tourists sunbathing under the palm trees than in violent struggle against French rule, however. Even independence activists acknowledge a majority of the island's 320,000 inhabitants probably wants to remain French. As an indication, officials point out that independence groups never have attracted a following in local elections and that the island always has been more prosperous than its neighbors, chiefly because the central government in France pays the bills.
But the New Caledonia revolt, in which a form of independence has come under discussion, has emboldened moderate Guadeloupe independence activists and broadened their audience among the island's 80 percent black majority. Spray-painted slogans in Creole -- "French Assassins" and "Frenchmen Out" -- have multiplied on the walls of Point-a-Pitre.
The main independence organization, Popular Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe, last April brought in militants from New Caledonia, Martinique, French Guiana, and the Indian Ocean island of Reunion for what was billed as a conference of "the last French colonies."
According to right-wing political activists and some French officials, proindependence extremists also have received encouragement and support from Cuba, raising the specter of what these sources depict as a further destabilizing force in the region should French rule end here.
"If the independence activists are developing -- and we have to admit they are developing, even if they still are not numerous -- it is because they are being supported from outside by people with interests in helping them," charged Edouard Boulogne of the antiindependence Association Guadeloupe 2000.
The main above-ground independence leader, Claude Makouk, denied any contact with Cuba and said his group has not even received support from the Guadeloupian Communist Party. President Fidel Castro, addressing Caribbean writers last March in Havana, warned that Guadeloupians remain divided on independence and thus activists "should not be in a hurry."
In any case, la contagion has struck more than people's minds. A satchel bomb exploded in a local restaurant March 13, killing a waitress, a Guadeloupian woman lunching with her family and a 70-year-old American tourist strolling by during a stopover by his cruise ship. Earlier bombings hit a pair of police stations, another restaurant and a truck.
No one claimed responsibility for the blasts, and police have arrested no one. But determined antiindependence French citizens and separatists alike unofficially added the bombings to a growing list of incidents by underground independence agitators over the last several years.
While President Francois Mitterrand's government has undertaken to loosen French rule over the Pacific territory of New Caledonia, the situation is more complicated for Guadeloupe and France's other major possessions in the Caribbean. Like the neighboring island of Martinique and French Guyana on the northeastern rim of South America, this butterfly-shaped island is a French department, an integral part of France, legally bound to Paris, even more closely than a U.S. state is to Washington, D.C.
The island's main road, for example, is a route nationale, theoretically part of the national French network, even though it leads only a few miles to the Caribbean Sea. The chief government representative here is a prefect, sent from Paris with the same authority as he would have in other French departments on the mainland 4,000 miles away.
"We have been French since 1635, since Louis XIII," declared Jean-Marc Hemery, who works on Boulogne's antiindependence magazine, Guadeloupe 2000. "We are more French than many French people on the mainland."
Actually, Guadeloupe has spent most of its history as a colony, becoming a French department only in 1946. Nevertheless, the years of French presence have left their mark. The main square in Point-a-Pitre is called Place de la Victoire, just like those in villages across France commemorating the victory over Germany in World War I.
Around this square at dusk, youths drive up on mopeds and buss one another on both cheeks before sitting down at a sidewalk cafe for a drink. In one restaurant on the square, the cook makes a respectable, andouillette a la dijonnaise in a region better known for turtle steak and conch stew.
Makouk, a Paris-trained doctor, said in a interview that none of the French flavor or the French-stock residents would have to go if Guadeloupe became independent. He predicted that, despite resistance from Mitterrand's government and many islanders, the idea of independence is taking hold and that soon protests and strikes will "paralyze" the French administration.
In an apparent sign of concern over his threats, local journalists and bankers have spoken of reports that wealthy residents are transferring money out of the island.
Mitterrand's election also helped, Makouk said, because the socialist leader's proclaimed opposition to colonial vestiges has made it embarrassing for him to hear the independence demands for Guadeloupe.
Makouk said his group has no links to the "Caribbean Revolutionary Alliance," whose members had been tied to past bombings. But he acknowledged that he has led demonstrations in favor of alliance members and helped arrange legal defense for those arrested in a series of bombings.
Luc Reinette, whom French authorities identified as the alliance leader, was among six separatists convicted Feb. 7 of two 1983 bombings here.
The alliance has a shifting membership which makes it, in effect, the action arm of the Movement for Guadeloupian Independence, a radical separatist group with members here and in Paris, Makouk said. Although authorities also have reported incidents in Martinique, Guadeloupe has been the center of agitation against French rule in the region.