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French minister flies to Caribbean islands after mooting autonomy

By AFP
28 November 2021   |   12:36 pm
A French minister flew to the protest-hit islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean on Sunday after raising the possibility of giving the Paris-ruled territories greater autonomy.

French Overseas Minister Sebastien Lecornu leaves The Elysee Presidential Palace after taking part in the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris on November 24, 2021. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

A French minister flew to the protest-hit islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean on Sunday after raising the possibility of giving the Paris-ruled territories greater autonomy.

Sebastien Lecornu, who is responsible for overseas French territories, said Friday the government was ready to discuss giving the islands a degree of self-government in a bid to end more than 10 days of protests and rioting sparked by Covid-19 restrictions.

It sparked immediate condemnation from opposition politicians five months ahead of presidential elections, with far-right Marine Le Pen accusing him of “trying to buy off the most radical independence groups” and being ready to “give away” the islands.

In an interview published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Lecornu defended the idea and denied opening the door to them splitting from France.

“Autonomy is certainly not independence: it already exists for certain overseas territories to various degrees,” he explained.

An aide to the minister told AFP that the situation was “calm” on both islands overnight on Saturday-Sunday.

Former colonial-power France saw most of its overseas possessions seek independence around 60 years ago, but it retains control over 12 territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well as in the Caribbean.

They are home to 2.6 million French people.

Guadeloupe and Martinique are ruled as if they were on mainland France, but locals complain about higher-than-average poverty levels, poorer public services and official neglect.

Other islands such as French Polynesia in the Pacific have already been granted autonomy, while the Pacific Islands of New Caledonia are to vote next month in the third of three independence referendums.

The often violent protests on Guadeloupe were started by hardline opponents of compulsory vaccination for health workers and firefighters on the island — a measure already implemented in mainland France.

They have since spread to Martinique and morphed into a larger movement to express frustration at Paris.

In a first announcement intended to defuse the anger over compulsory vaccinations, the French government has proposed pushing back the deadline until December 31.

Vaccination rates on the Caribbean islands trail those on the mainland with less than half the population inoculated on Guadeloupe compared with 75 percent of the whole French population.