Martinique, Guiana vote on more autonomy from France
Martinique and French Guiana hold referendums Sunday on greater autonomy, a year after French overseas departments were convulsed by strikes and rioting over low wages and high prices.Paris - Martinique and French Guiana hold referendums Sunday on greater autonomy, a year after French overseas departments were convulsed by strikes and rioting over low wages and high prices.
Voters in the territories -- the remains of France's once global empire -- will not be able to plump for independence from Paris but can vote to have more say in how they run their own affairs and how they spend government money.
President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the vote in June when he travelled to Martinique as part of a drive to heal ties with overseas departments where a general strike degenerated into weeks of rioting at the start of 2009.
Voters in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe will not be taking part in the consultation as their local leaders decided that the tense social climate was not conducive to holding a referendum.
Martinique, which has around 400,000 residents, and Guiana, a vast territory on the South American continent with some 200,000 residents, will be asked to approve or reject a change in status for their departments.
The wording of the question is technical but in essence it asks voters if they want to change the status to make it more like that governing more autonomous French territories such as New Caledonia in the Pacific.
If a majority say yes then a law will be drawn up -- and later voted upon -- to decide how responsibilities are divided up between local authorities and Paris.
Sixty years after first being granted the status of department -- which makes them legally as French as Normandy or Provence -- these tropical territories overseas face recurrent social problems despite massive financial support from the state.
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.
Wages in both departments are significantly lower than on the French mainland.
Campaigners for a yes vote on Sunday say the new status would remove obstacles that have kept development in check.
"No" campaigners warn 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.
An opinion poll published Thursday in Martinique said 59 percent of voters on the island would say no.
If the proposed change is rejected, a second referendum will be held on 24 January in which voters will be asked to give their opinion only on whether they want administrative simplifications to be carried out.