London’s Times on France’s overseas territories

London’s Times newspaper has just published a lengthy article about France’s relations with its overseas territories. It is a perceptive—and often ironic—look at the consequences of France’s costly and ineffective solution to the problems of colonialism. Here are some excerpts, with the link to the complete article below:

So what if modern France now seems woefully out of touch, its beautiful capital recently described by Le Monde as a “museum town”? The French might be locked into an economic community with Europe, but they also have a profound conviction of their unique global value and will pay billions of euros to cement it.

Nowhere can this be seen more fundamentally than in the “outre-mer”, France’s overseas domains. Napoleon described the outre-mer slightingly as “this confetti of Empire”, but France is determined to hang onto its imperial remnants in a quasi-Napoleonic manner which far outstrips the post-colonial politics of other western nations. If you live in the outre-mer, you are French to your core, no matter what your skin colour, your maternal language, religion or background. You carry a French passport and, in theory, the French state will support you.

I’m sitting in a small motorised canoe in French Guyana — or, as the French call it, Guyane — on the tip of South America. Here the rainforest goes on for hundreds of miles. Giant trees stretch away on all sides, tops covered in mist, roots plunging into emerald marshes full of flowering reeds. Egrets stalk through the water. Dragonflies dip beside us. It is very hot. This is la France profonde, but not the countryside of Michelin and Les Routiers. And yet, officially, Guyana is as French as Normandy and Provence.

After about an hour of chugging down a series of intertwining rivers, we arrive at the village of Kaw, population 60. There is a school, a church and a hall furnished with a classic French yellow postbox. Every week a postman turns up by boat to collect the mail. Official papers headed with a Tricoleur and the rallying cry of “Liberté, egalité, fraternité”, are affixed to the hall door. We are 10,000 kilometres from Paris, yet it’s warming to see the French obsession with red tape has not abated. In the school the national curriculum is being taught, just as in the classrooms of France.

This is how life goes on in one of the Départements et Territoires Outre-Mer, or Dom-Toms. The Dom-Toms are distant, isolated, extremely expensive and produce virtually nothing of any use. Their only role is to promote the continuing glory of the French Republic.

Working out how much it costs to keep the departments (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana and La Réunion), and the territories (including Polynesia and New Caledonia), plus a variety of other islands scattered from Canada to Antarctica, is rather like guessing the number of bonbons in a jar, and then gluing on seven zeros. But to give you an idea, the Caribbean island of Martinique costs the Elysée Palace some €2 billion a year, the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, €1 billion, and even tiny St Pierre et Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland, about €50m. And that’s just the trade deficits. Paris also picks up the bill for nigh on all the public sector employment, and for infrastructural “grands projets” (bridges, hospitals, cultural centres), plus paying benefits, including a giant bill for the unemployed. Unemployment in the Dom-Toms runs to about 30%. There is simply no work — indeed not much need for work, since everything comes in the form of a handout.

Even so, the mostly Creole population of Martinique and Guadeloupe last year launched waves of violent protests against unemployment and the high cost of living, and began agitating for independence. Strikes in February paralysed the Caribbean islands, while in Guyana thousands took to the streets. There was even the threat of insurrection on balmy La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Sarkozy reacted by sending 300 riot police to Guadeloupe, and slamming a further €580m on the table.

Last summer, he took a trip to the Caribbean himself to tell his naughty overseas children how much he cared to keep them within the power of L’Hexagone (as France is known out here).

“I will consult the people of Martinique on the development of the institutions of their region, as the constitution allows me,” he announced after an official visit to a bakery in the capital of Fort de France. A referendum is due to be held this month, but greater autonomy is all that will be discussed. “As long as I am president, the question of Martinique’s independence, that is, separation from France, will not be broached,” said Sarkozy. Letting the Republic fracture is not a presidential thing to do.

The Dom-Toms are utterly different from our own post-empire Commonwealth of 54 sovereign states. When you see pictures of the Queen in a far-flung office, her position there is purely ceremonial. Not so with the many formal portraits of Sarkozy across the Dom-Toms. The French president is boss, bankrolls the lot, and keeps them in check. When the Commonwealth gets restive, a conference is called. When the Dom-Toms get restive, the Elysée Palace sends in the gendarmes.

“The original idea was to turn non-Europeans into Frenchmen and to make the colonies as much like France as possible,” says Professor Robert Aldrich of the University of Sydney, co-author of France’s Overseas Frontier. “The policy was manifestly unworkable and naively utopian, sexist and racist.” But the ghost of assimilation has not been dispelled, and Paris continues to insist that the outre-mer is within France. In the Guyanese city of Kourou, where the European Space Agency is based, there is very little noise about Europe and a lot of noise about France. The EU coughs up for Guyana to host the space project, which is used mostly to launch commercial satellites, but nearly half the bill is met by France. This might explain the discrepancy between the modestly sized flags from the EU nations and the football-pitch-sized Tricoleur at the entrance to the project.

For the complete article go to http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6971605.ece

One thought on “London’s Times on France’s overseas territories

  1. This article completely omits the sense of belonging that the majority of the french in these lands have to the french nation as a whole, and the french ideals. The British Empire on the other hand, might have completely disintegrated into the historic remnants that is the Commonwealth – partly due to the lack of belonging to a common nation – but that is not France’s fault…

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