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Far-flung islands make up EU’s largest constituency

Saint Denis de la Reunion — From Amazonian rainforests to South Pacific atolls, on a foggy North Atlantic archipelago and a balmy Indian Ocean island, voters in the world’s farthest-flung constituency are going to the polls.

France’s remaining former imperial possessions are now integrated parts of the republic and hence, despite being scattered on just about every continent but Europe, full regions of the European Union.

On Sunday their citizens will vote for candidates to represent 2.5 million people scattered across the globe in the European Parliament.

But if even voters in Barcelona or Warsaw complain that they sometimes feel excluded by the work of their representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg, how do the people of these distant lands feel about it?

Fewer than one in three overseas voters bothered to cast ballots in the last European election in 2004, and an unfortunate calendar clash might not help boost turnout this time round, according to some residents.

"No, I’m not sure I’m going to vote on Sunday, because it’s Mother’s Day. That’s more important than elections," laughed Andree Grondin, a 31-year-old cleaning lady from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.

Others say they will not vote because Europe’s institutions mean little to voters tens of thousands of miles away.

"No, I won’t bother, because I don’t really know what the European Parliament is for," said 40-year-old farmer Pauline Fontaine.

In fact, Europe has a very real influence on daily life in places like Reunion, as a minority of voters have come to realise.

"We like Europe, and at the same time it scares us," explained 35-year-old small business owner Charles-Henri Maillot.

"On the one hand, over six years it gave us two billion euros in credits that paid to build our roads, our schools and hospitals," he admitted.

"One the other, Europe wants to abolish the trade duties that protect our agriculture from competition from Indian Ocean countries with cheap labour coast," he said.

Other islanders complain that EU fishing quotas designed to protect fish stocks in the North Atlantic make no sense in, for example, the Indian Ocean.

So EU law can be important for the overseas territories, but are the overseas territories important for Europe? They should be, argues, Reunion regional councillor Maya Cesari.

"Largely thanks to the French overseas, Europe has the largest maritime economic zone in the world, 25 million square kilometres," she said, calling on Brussels not to forget this when it hands out structural funds.

France as a whole has eight constituencies for the purposes of this weekend’s vote. Seven of them are in metropolitan France, which takes in the European mainland and the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

The eighth covers the four overseas departments, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Guiana in South America, and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

The huge constituency also encompasses France’s overseas territories, which have a more autonomous status than overseas departments but whose residents nevertheless have full EU voting rights.

The 6,000 people on the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, just off Canada’s Atlantic coast, will thus join folks in Tahiti in the south Pacific to pick people to represent them in the European Parliament.

At the last European elections in 2004 the voting system saw three candidates from the most populous overseas department Reunion, and none from anywhere else, elected.

To avoid a repetition, the system has been changed and the constituency split into three zones: the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

There are six political parties running for the vote and each list is obliged to have at least one candidate in each zone to ensure that each zone has a representative in Brussels.

Idriss Issa/AFP/Expatica