Former colonies struggle to escape the shadow of French colonial rule
    The dawn of a decadent empire

    ANALYTICS  02 March 2024 - 17:50

    Artem Kirpichenok

    Today, a certain romanticism surrounds the image of European colonial empires. Noble sahibs in cork helmets spread civilisation among "savage" tribes, carrying the "white man's burden" to the farthest reaches of the planet. These images seemed to have been forgotten, but many of our contemporaries will be surprised to learn that a number of nations still have overseas colonies. Of course, these are now only the shadows of vast colonial empires on which the sun never set, but to this day several million people live under European rule, and the rights of the local population are often restricted by the authority of viceroys appointed in European capitals.

    Paris's colonies, known as the "Overseas Territories of France", are considered one of the most extensive possessions of Europeans outside their continent at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They comprise thirteen territories around the globe, with a total surface area of more than half a million square kilometres and a population of almost two million eight hundred thousand people. Some people think of modern colonies as a kind of Hong Kong: thriving democratic communities on paradise islands, where high technology and tourism flourish under the tutelage of European democracies. But the reality of French colonial possessions is more complex than the image on a tourist poster.

    The economic policy towards the colonial possessions allows Paris to create mechanisms of non-equivalent exchange and thus to benefit unilaterally from trade with its overseas territories. This involves subsidising the production of low-value-added goods and restricting the production of manufactured goods. France's overseas territories tend to be agrarian and raw material appendages of the metropolis, specialised in the production and primary processing of a single mono-product, supplied mainly to France at low purchase prices.

    This is a source of resentment for a population that is cut off from the metropolis in terms of ethnicity, culture and geography. In 2009, Guadeloupe and Martinique were the scene of violent clashes that brought to light many of the ills of the colonial society of the twenty-first century. It emerged, for example, that much of the land and capital on the islands is still controlled by ethnic French and their descendants, known as "Becks". In Martinique, they make up no more than one per cent of the population, but much of the local industry is under their control.

    Formally, the indigenous people of Martinique and Guadeloupe had all the rights of French citizens. In practice, however, their lives were determined by decisions made in Paris, and their economic situation did not come close to the standard of living of the French. Tourism and importing most food meant that prices were much higher and wages much lower than in mainland France. A housing shortage meant that 70 per cent of the population of Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe's second-largest town, had to rent. Crime, poverty and unemployment were twice as high in the colonies as on the mainland, and unemployment was the highest in the European Union. In Guadeloupe, for example, youth unemployment was almost 56 per cent!

    The largest protests began in Guadeloupe on January 20, 2009, when local trade unions demanded an increase in the minimum wage by 200 euros a month and a reduction in business taxes. Almost 50,000 islanders took to the streets. Negotiations with the Minister for Overseas Territories, Yves Jego, were unsuccessful and mass strikes followed. Charter flights to France were cancelled, the container terminal that served the island, and all petrol stations, schools, banks and government offices were closed. This led to power cuts in Guadeloupe.

    On February 16, the protests turned into an uprising. Barricades were erected in the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre, and demonstrators blocked roads and set fire to trees. Police fired tear gas and arrested around 50 people, but had to release them after crowds of angry islanders gathered outside the police station. Two days later, gunfire erupted on the island, wounding two police officers and killing a teenager called Jacques Bino. On February 19, 500 riot police arrived in Guadeloupe and were able to quell the protests.

    In Martinique, a strike paralysed the island's capital Fort-de-France. Residents were demanding lower water and electricity prices and higher wages. Because of the unrest, Martinique's annual four-day carnival was cancelled for the first time in its history. To quell the riots, 120 police officers were sent from France, and commercial companies promised to reduce the price of basic goods by 20% by optimising transport.

    As a result of the protests, a special government commission was set up in Paris and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that raising wages was out of the question because the only solution to all economic problems was to increase market competition.

    Apparently, the outcome of the Paris Commission was not positive either, as the riots in Guadeloupe were repeated in 2021, during the coronavirus epidemic. Thousands of people took to the streets at the instigation of the trade unions, first to protest against the introduction of the 'health passport' and then to call for attention to be paid to the general plight of the coloured population. It became clear that in the 12 years since the 2009 protests, the French authorities had done nothing to address the islanders' economic problems. The protests once again turned into riots, with shops, pharmacies and petrol stations being smashed up, and around fifty special forces were sent to the island.

    Another "hot spot" of the French colonial empire is New Caledonia. The islanders' standard of living is more comparable to that of their Indian Ocean neighbours than to that of France, despite the fact that New Caledonia has some of the world's richest natural resources, including 25% of the world's proven nickel reserves and deposits of cobalt, silver, copper, gold, silver and chromium.

    In the 1980s, this led to outright fighting between independence supporters and French settlers. As a result, Paris was forced to grant New Caledonia special administrative status. In 2021, the island held a third referendum on independence, with the French deploying around 2,000 soldiers and police to enforce it. Although the vote ended in defeat for the pro-independence camp, experts believe it is only a matter of time before the country gains independence. The island's indigenous population, the Kanaks, now make up just over 40 per cent of New Caledonia's population, but the natural increase in their community is much higher than that of the French.

    What is Paris' response to the demands and protests of the inhabitants of its colonies, apart from an increase in police presence? France's policy can be defined as an attempt to preserve the former, colonial character of economic relations with its overseas territories while changing as much as possible the external form of interaction with its island possessions.

    Since the beginning of the 21st century, the French colonies have been granted the right to have symbols of statehood: an anthem, a national emblem and a flag, often very different from the heraldry of the Fifth Republic itself. The terms "DOM" (département d'outre-mer) and "TOM" (territoire d'outre-mer) or DOM-TOM; "overseas departments" or "overseas territories" gradually disappeared from the political lexicon. Instead, the more neutral term 'Overseas France' was used in legal documents, in the hope that this would not evoke unwelcome associations in the minds of the colony's inhabitants.

    The commitments that the country has made within the European Union also exert some pressure on the French authorities. The fifth article of the Maastricht Treaty of February 7, 1992, establishes the principle of subsidiarity of powers and management. This led France, as part of its ongoing constitutional reform, to adopt the Organic Law on Local Democracy, which legitimised popular legislative initiatives and referendums in the colonies. This allowed local people to initiate political decisions and, to some extent, added elements of democracy to the existing system.

    At the same time, Paris has no intention of giving the overseas territories any more power than is necessary to suppress separatist sentiment, nor does it intend to turn the remnants of its empire into something resembling the British Commonwealth.


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