Opinion | Why France’s Overseas Territories Vote for Other Than Macron

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On April 24, the day of the last round of France’s presidential election, many woke up to a shocking development: Majorities in the overseas departments (or territories) of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana – who cast their vote a day ahead of time due to time constraints. difference – voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen ahead of President Emmanuel Macron.

Although Macron ultimately won the election, Le Pen won 41 percent of the total vote, which is the far right wing’s best performance ever in a French presidential election. More than 60 percent of voters in each of the three departments, along with majorities in the Indian Ocean divisions of Mayotte and Réunion, contributed to it.

Yet just two weeks earlier in the first round of elections, left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon won 40 percent of the vote from overseas territories, almost double his national rate. And in this month’s parliamentary elections, no candidate from Le Pen’s National Rally was elected by overseas departments. The left, on the other hand, did well, with the NUPES coalition winning six out of seven seats in Réunion. Most constituencies in Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana also voted for candidates from the left or local parties.

What explains these seemingly confusing trends? Part of the story could be distrust of the system: The most popular attitude abroad was to abstain. But in fact, the results were also a clear rejection of Macron.

In the 2017 presidential election, Macron won the second round of these chambers by a significant margin. But since then he has been a great disappointment to these populations.

France’s overseas territories – former colonies – have long been subject to discriminatory treatment and continue to experience injustice and neglect today. For example, a toxic pesticide banned on the French mainland in 1990 was still allowed in departments for years; an estimated 95 percent of Guadeloupeans and 92 percent of Martiniquans were exposed to it. Would such conditions have been allowed to spread on the mainland? Similarly, until 1996, France used a minimum wage in departments lower than in continental France.

Since coming to power, Macron’s government has done little to prioritize the concerns of those in the departments. Consider the situation in Guadeloupe. Following a fire in 2017, the area’s university hospital closed its doors for months and subsequently worked under greatly reduced capacity; it still faces staff and resource problems. Secure access to drinking water – a basic human right – has also been a problem in the department for decades and continues to this day thanks to dilapidated infrastructure.

In French Guiana, months after Macron’s election in 2017, a social movement emerged to protest the huge disparities in public services offered in the area. The president – who as a candidate erroneously referred to the South American department as an “island” – reacted dryly to the social unrest, saying he was “no Santa Claus.”

His government later closed France Ô, the public canal dedicated to overseas territories, and Macron said it was “not necessary.”

The pandemic – and the French government’s top-down approach to dealing with it – only exacerbated mistrust and suspicion. How could citizens in wards after years of contempt and neglect trust that the state should suddenly prioritize their health? Restrictive measures were generally announced by prefects – representatives of the French state – rather than local elected representatives, which increased the impression that the former colonizer imposed policies without taking into account the local context.

When unrest then broke out against the measures in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the government sent a special police unit to the areas. This felt outrageous to the residents as the public services were still so defective and lasting problems had been ignored for so long.

France’s overseas territories were once known for their strong antipathy towards the far right. While trying to visit Martinique in 1987, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was prevented from landing by protesters. In 1997, when he banded in Martinique on his way to Puerto Rico, he was ravaged by activists. But the far right does not frighten younger generations as much as their older ones. In April, Martiniquan researcher Myriam Moïse argued that Le Pen’s performance in the presidential election was “an insult to our ancestors” who had “fought racism and hatred.”

As hard as it is to recognize, xenophobia is also on the rise in several of these territories and probably part of the mix that boosted the far right. In French Guiana – whose border with Brazil is the largest between France and another country – the League of Human Rights condemned recent incidents of “xenophobic violence”. Similarly, in Mayotte, an island in the Indian Ocean, militias have been set up to harass undocumented Comorians. In the presidential election, Le Pen – with his record of Islamophobic rhetoric and attitudes – led in both rounds in Mayotte, even though almost 95 percent of the local population is Muslim.

The anger against the state in France’s overseas territories is understandable. Yet the emergence of the far right in these territories reflects how effective the National Rally has been in reshaping its image. Macron and other politicians in power should not neglect this new threat to the ideals of the French Republic – and should act to ensure that citizens living in departments feel valued and heard.

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