Martinique, Guiana reject autonomy from France
Paris: 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 it’s 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 said.
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.
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