Martinique, French Guiana reject more autonomy

11th January 2010, Comments 0 comments

Nearly 79 percent of voters on the Caribbean island of Martinique said no and almost 70 percent did the same in Guiana in a referendum held on Sunday.

Fort-de-France – Martinique and French Guiana voted against more autonomy from Paris in a referendum dominated by fears of losing French state support, results showed Monday.

The two French overseas departments held the votes on Sunday to decide whether they should have more of a say in running their own affairs, a year after rioting paralysed much of Martinique and neighbouring Guadeloupe.

Nearly 79 percent of voters on the Caribbean island of Martinique said no and almost 70 percent did the same in Guiana, the South American territory wedged between Brazil and Suriname.

"The choice was clear, blunt and without ambiguity," said Fort-de-France mayor Serge Letchimy, who had campaigned for a "no" vote.

"This is a victory for people who have shown they are clear-headed," he said.

Turnout was about 48 percent in Guiana and 55 percent in Martinique, according to official results announced by the ministry for overseas affairs.

The campaign was largely dominated by fears that increased autonomy for the departments would lead to less state support from Paris, particularly in Martinique, which has an aging population.

"No" campaigners had warned the French state might be seeking to disengage from its overseas departments and reduce their people's social benefits, which are largely the same as in France.

Martinique Senator Claude Lise, who had backed a 'yes' vote, said "this was a vote of panic."

"Martinique and Guiana have missed a major turn in their history and scuttled a proposed reform that could have helped them build their future," said Lise.

President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed holding the referendums when he travelled to Martinique in June as part of a drive to heal ties following the general strike which degenerated into weeks of rioting at the start of 2009.

Sixty years after being granted the status of department -- which makes them legally as French as Normandy or Provence -- the territories face social problems including high unemployment and low wages despite massive financial support from the state.

A year ago, the French overseas departments in the Caribbean as well as the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion were convulsed by strikes and rioting over low wages and high prices.

France's opposition Socialists suggested that Sarkozy's warning that more autonomy would come with less state support influenced the result.

"What could have weighed on the result is the president saying in February 2009 that with the transfer of powers to overseas departments, funding should be from local resources," Socialist party chief for overseas departments Axel Urgin said on RFO radio.

But Sarkozy said the result reflected strong ties to France.

"The choice is evidence of the attachment of Guianians and Martinicans to a status which is close to those of communities in metropolitan France and reaffirms the close ties which unite them to the Republic," he said in a statement.

The wording of the question was technical but in essence it asked voters if they wanted to change the status to make it more like that governing more autonomous French territories such as New Caledonia in the Pacific.

Martinique, a major rum and banana producer and a tourist destination for mainland French seeking winter sunshine, has an unemployment rate topping 20 percent, more than twice that of metropolitan France.

Guiana, perhaps best known as the launch site for Europe's Ariane space rockets, faces similarly high joblessness.

AFP / Expatica

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