AFP - Martinique and French Guiana voted massively against more autonomy for their French overseas departments, fearful a change of status would lead to less generous financial support from Paris. Nearly 79 percent of voters on the Caribbean island of Martinique said no to more autonomy, while the result was almost 70 percent in Guiana, the tropical South American territory wedged between Brazil and Suriname.
Participation was 55 percent in Martinique and slightly over 48 percent in Guiana, according to definitive results released by France's ministry for overseas departments. The votes were held a year after 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.
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. Martinique, which has around 400,000 residents, and Guiana, a vast territory with some 200,000 residents, were asked to approve or reject a change in status for their departments.
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. Sixty years after being granted the status of department -- which makes them legally as French as Normandy or Provence -- the tropical territories face recurrent social problems including high unemployment and low wages despite massive financial support from the state.
The mayor of Guiana's capital Cayenne, Rodolphe Alexandre, said the question of financing drove the campaign and the result of the referendum. While recognising the current statute which sets out their status has its drawbacks, Alexandre said "in the end its not a problem of powers or the statute but of financing and strategy. That is what changed people's minds." The result is a "victory for democracy, for the silent majority," he told AFP.
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 was quoted as saying in a statement by his office.
"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, 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. Voters on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, which had also been rocked by strikes, did not take part in the consultations as their local leaders decided that the tense social climate was not conducive to holding a referendum.
Guiana and Martinique will now hold a second referendum on January 24 in which voters will be asked to give their opinion only on whether they want administrative simplifications to be carried out.
By Rodolphe Lamy,
Jan 10, 11:46 pm ET
FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique – Voters in Martinique and French Guiana overwhelmingly rejected a proposal Sunday to give local government more autonomy while remaining a part of France. Election officials in Martinique said 80 percent of voters rejected the plan, with 55 percent participation, according to preliminary results. Some votes remained to be counted, but officials did not expect the results to change significantly.
In French Guiana, 70 percent voted "no," with 48 percent turnout.
Some Martinique officials viewed the proposed autonomy as an opportunity for the Caribbean island to make decisions in areas such as development, education and employment. They argued the remote French government did not know what was best for the island. "Martinique and French Guiana missed a date with history and passed alongside a reform that would have allowed them to better understand their future," said Claude Lise, president of Martinique's General Council, one of two legislative bodies.
But opponents — including leaders of the Progressive Martinique Party founded by the late Aime Cesaire, a renowned poet and politician who long supported autonomy — said the referendum was neither the opportunity nor the solution to emerge from tough economic times. An estimated 50,000 people are unemployed on Martinique, which is home to 400,000 inhabitants.
The ballot measure in each of the two French Caribbean departments called for giving local government more administrative leeway. French President Nicolas Sarkozy would have determined the extent of the autonomy.
Martinique legislator Alfred Almont said voters were correct to reject the referendum because the island could not accept a proposal without some guarantee of what autonomy it would receive. The proposed Article 74 would have replaced Article 73 of the constitution, which has governed the political status of Martinique and French Guiana as French departments for 64 years.
The referendum was a first for French Guiana, while Martinique rejected a similar measure six years ago.
With Sunday's measure failing, voters will now decide Jan. 24 whether to support the creation of a local authority that will combine the existing general and regional councils that govern each department. Jaqueline Manger, a Martinique resident who voted against the proposal, said Article 73 provided assurance that the island would continue to develop socially and economically.
"I would like a change, but I don't think we are ready yet. I don't trust the people who lead the regional council and the general council," she said. The referendum came one year after violent strikes paralyzed the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe for more than a month as union leaders demanded higher wages and lower prices. Business leaders agreed to several changes, but some unrest continues.
Sarkozy suggested the referendum last June following the strikes, saying the status of France's overseas departments was based on an "unfair, obscure and biased" system.
Guadeloupe did not participate in the referendum.