Martinique's tough choice

A referendum on independence is due, but saying farewell to the “free baguette” may prove unpalatable to many in France's neo-empire
October 16, 2009

The Martiniquan newspaper shows Nicolas Sarkozy stooping for a photo call. He is squashed against a small, middle-aged woman’s face, the pressure accentuating his worry lines, while releasing a look of joy on her own. On television news bulletins on the Caribbean island, Sarkozy looked just as ill at ease wandering around a pain-au-chocolat factory in Fort de France, Martinique's capital, during his visit at the end of June.

Sarkozy’s visit was an attempt to meet the political discord currently dogging these parts. A general strike and weeks of rioting in Guadeloupe in January spread to Martinique and La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, reigniting debate about the future of the French neo-empire, or the départements et territoires d'outre-mer—also known as the DOM-TOMs.

I was in Martinique filming a documentary on life in France’s overseas departments when Sarkozy delivered his landmark speech here in June. The French president offered the colonial malcontents the chance to disengage from France, although not to break away: “autonomy” is the buzzword, rather than independence. A referendum has now been set for 17th January.

Scattered rather haphazardly around the globe, the DOM-TOMs represent the colonial leftovers—what remained after France ditched its interests in French Africa and French Indo-China in the 1950s and early 1960s. Though they straddle the globe, giving France a sense of strategic importance in far-off parts, few are of major economic or political importance.

Sarkozy has been known to compare this haphazard collection of territories to spoilt children, with their hands constantly held out for treats. The sweeties come in the shape of enormous cash subsidies from France which fund public sector employment and huge infrastructure projects, and finance chronic trade deficits, caused in no small part by a fixation with importing stuff thousands of miles from mainland France. Thus, when you enter a DOM-TOM boulangerie you are immediately transported to a Parisian arrondissement with rows of perfect croissants and fluffy baguettes. And on nearly every corner shines a bright green cross indicating the presence of yet another French style phamarcie.

Yet if all that France is getting is a misplaced pride, in knowing that the croissants are never far away, then the modern day DOM-TOMs begin to resemble one of history’s most expensive vanity projects.

The political doyen of Martinique is Dr Pierre Alika. He recently celebrated his 102nd birthday by getting married to a much younger woman of 80. He fully appreciates what the French connection has done for his homeland since it became an official departement after the second world war. “In the 1940s Fort de France was full of typhoid. I saw two funeral corteges a day going past my house. That has become history with modern water supply. And proper education for all our children is also guaranteed now.”

Martinique certainly has many other trappings of a wealthy European country: a great health service, fabulous roads, very little crime and conspicuously well-used public beaches. It also enjoys hideous traffic jams and, until Sarkozy opened his chequebook this year, sky high petrol prices. In a bid to quell the discontent on the island and in Guadeloupe, the prices of hundreds of key products were reduced overnight by 20, and even 30 per cent, costing Paris a reputed €580m.

But the French link comes at a cost: big public sector projects have to go through layers of French decision making. I’m told it took a quarter of a century to get the main sports stadium—named after Dr Alika—built. Although still pointing his country towards Paris and criticising Sarkozy for being too keen to please people, even Dr Alika concedes that all good things eventually have to come to an end. “Autonomy is the way for the future Martinique—but we don’t want to leave the grand ensemble of France completely, you see.”

There is, however, some support for full-blown independence. For Garcin Malsa, a socialist mayor who’d be quite at home having tea with the ex-mayor of London Ken Livingstone, true political sovereignty might help Martiniquans shake off the poisonous legacy of the slave trade. “President Sarkozy is like Napoleon, a dictator who still wants an empire. The only thing that matters now is paying back the people who have been enslaved all these years, deprived of their rights and never been compensated for the terrible things that happened here,” he told me.

Malsa is particularly energised about the white minority known colloquially as the Beke, the direct descendants of the slave owners. Critics say that the Beke still hog the commanding heights of Martinique’s economy and, amid disquieting talk of maintaining racial purity, struggle to integrate with the local people. “The Beke are like the South African whites during apartheid,” Malsa says. “And Sarkozy is like a fascist, as he does not intend to break them up.”

Unsurprisingly, representatives of the Beke label such talk as communist and say that the real debate should be about improving Martiniquans’ work ethic: how to make them better capitalists and how to open the country up to the world.

It’s too early to call which way the vote, earmarked for the end of the year, will go, but even if Martinique chooses autonomy, President Sarkozy will still be left writing large cheques. As long as France still provides lots of meaty public jobs and the annual €2bn or so trade deficit, it’s hard to see Martiniquans—or any of the other DOM-TOMs—giving away the free baguette.