French Caribbean 'no' to Paris reforms

8th December 2003, Comments 0 comments

BASSE-TERRE, Guadeloupe, Dec 8 (AFP) - Voters on the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique have rejected a government-backed reform plan which would have altered their constitutional relation with Paris, according to the results of a referendum released Monday.

BASSE-TERRE, Guadeloupe, Dec 8 (AFP) - Voters on the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique have rejected a government-backed reform plan which would have altered their constitutional relation with Paris, according to the results of a referendum released Monday.

The defeat of the proposed change in Sunday's vote was seen as a rebuff for the centre-right French government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin as well as for the islands' political elite -- most of whom had backed the referendum.

The aim of the reform was to eliminate a tier of local government, but many voters appear to have feared it represented a step towards autonomy — despite reassurances from Paris that the islands would remain an integral part of France.

With a combined population of 800,000, the islands are treated administratively as part of the French mainland, sending deputies to the National Assembly in Paris and having their own state-appointed prefects or governors.

Both islands are classed as "departments" but also - under decentralisation reforms introduced in the 1980s - as "regions." The aim of the reform was to streamline the system by giving the islands a new status - with one instead of two local assemblies in each.

The change was rejected by 73 percent of voters in Guadeloupe and 50.3 percent of voters in Martinique, which lies 120 kilometres (75 miles) to the south.

However voters on the two tiny French dependencies of Saint-Barthelemy and Saint-Martin, which have been administratively attached to Guadeloupe, approved the referendum and are set to acquire the new status of "overseas collectivity".

The territories - which lie at the northern end of the Lesser Antilles island chain and have a combined population of 36,000 - have been given guarantees they can retain their special tax privileges in the new system.

Saint-Martin - which shares its island with the Dutch territory of Saant-Maarten - is the only place in France where English is the main language. Saint-Barthelemy was ceded to France by Sweden in 1878 and is now prized as a jet-setters' retreat.

Raffarin's government has made decentralisation a major political theme, changing the country's constitution earlier this year to make it possible for regions to adopt flexible constitutional arrangements with the central authority.

However a first attempt to launch the process was blocked in July when voters on the Mediterranean island of Corsica voted against changes that were seen as a precursor to greater autonomy. In both Corsica and the Caribbean, pro-autonomy politicians were among those who supported the referendum.

Supporters of the reform on Guadeloupe and Martinique said voters had been scared into thinking the change in status would disqualify them from France's generous social security system.

Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the former French interior minister who has long campaigned against regional autonomy, welcomed the defeat, saying it showed that the "fight against a la carte constitutional settlements has not been in vain, either in the overseas republic, or in Corsica."

© AFP

                                                                Subject: French news

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