French territories vote no to autonomy but claims that top jobs go to immigrants persist

by Ray Clancy on January 15, 2010

People in Martinique and Guiana have voted against greater autonomy from France despite protests and strikes over low wages and high prices. Residents of the Caribbean territories want to maintain strong links with France. Nearly 79% on the island of Martinique and almost 70% in Guiana, on the South American mainland, rejected a reduction of French control of the two overseas departments. Campaigners in favour of less control had hoped for a positive outcome in the referendums. They argued it would allow the territories a greater say in key issues like development, education and employment.

It was just a year ago that a number of overseas French territories including Reunion and Guadeloupe, were rocked by violent protests and strikes caused by low wages, unemployment and high prices. It led to various debates about citizenship and immigration. There were claims that top jobs were going to ‘French’ immigrants rather than local people. Unemployment in France’s overseas territories is generally far higher than in mainland France. Food and fuel are also more expensive despite government efforts to cut prices.

In a statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the outcome of the referendum, saying it reflected the strong ties between the territories and metropolitan France. Both Martinique and French Guiana were granted French department status when Paris relinquished total control more than half a century ago. Alfred Marie-Jeanne, a leader of Martinique’s independence movement though voiced deep disappointment at the results. He said the No vote reflected people’s fears, not their aspirations.

Tensions though are still high in nearby Guadeloupe, another French territory in the Caribbean which was the scene of the most violent of last year’s confrontations when shops were burned and looted and a union leader was killed during a 44 day standoff between protesters and police. The trouble came at the height of the holiday season when thousands of British, French and American tourists visit the island. Now there has been talk of a general strike and further street protests.

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