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French Caribbean Voters Split on Reforms

December 8, 2003

POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe (AP) _ Voters on the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique rejected reforms to their legislatures Sunday that opponents had criticized as a step toward independence from France.

But the two smaller territories of St. Martin and St. Barts voted to create their own legislatures with direct ties to France and to stop being administered under Guadeloupe. Supporters on the two islands said they needed more local control over their affairs.

With most votes counted, 91 percent in St. Barts approved the change, while 76 percent in St. Martin passed the reform, according to preliminary results.

With all votes counted in Guadeloupe, about 74 percent rejected the proposal to streamline the Caribbean island’s two legislatures into a single one, electoral officials said.

And with all votes counted in Martinique, the reform narrowly lost with about 50.5 percent voting no, according to preliminary results.

Some among the 570,000 registered voters spread across four Caribbean islands said they feared the changes could be a first step toward independence from France, which colonized the islands in the 1600s.

The four islands encompass about 1 million people, mainly black descendants of slaves, who carry French passports, spend euros, speak the ``langue d’amour″ and elect legislators to the parliament in Paris. A once-violent independence movement now commands little support.

Proponents said the reforms have nothing to do with more autonomy from France, much less independence, saying they would give the provinces power to govern more efficiently. Turnout was moderate, ranging from 24 to 39 percent of voters.

Guadeloupe and Martinique both have a General Council and a Regional Council, with members elected every six years. Supporters of merging the two argued it would cut down on overlapping duties and bring government closer to the people.

Political analysts said the modest participation reflected both the norm for the islands and confusion over the referendum.

``The proposal isn’t clear,″ said Furil Belhaaloul, 46, a hot dog vendor who voted no. ``We don’t know if this is about independence, but it’s not worth the risk.″

However, the idea of breaking away from Guadeloupe found resonance in St. Barts and St. Martin, which shares an island with Dutch St. Maarten.

Supporters said a new local legislature would make sense for St. Barts, a ritzy playground for billionaires, because it has little in common with Guadeloupe, where nearly 30 percent are unemployed and receive welfare.

After World War II, France made a number of colonies part of its territory, granting residents full citizenship. They include Reunion off East Africa and French Guiana in South America.

Much of the former colonies’ budgets come from Paris, keeping them better off than nearby islands but dependent on subsidies.

The vote came as part of a move by Paris to decentralize government, approved by parliament in a constitutional reform March 17.