Anger at last year's Covid restrictions boosted support for Marine Le Pen
The sun never sets on France. Last Sunday’s presidential election took place in 12 different time zones, from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean to the “Hexagon” itself. And if the national ballot had reflected the voting in the fragments of former Empire — which are constitutionally part of France — the result would have been very different.
Martinique in the Caribbean (population: 355,000) voted 61% for Marine Le Pen. Its neighbour Guadeloupe (375,000) was 69% pro-Le Pen. The score in Guyane (294,000), which borders Brazil, was 60.7% for the far-Right candidate. Even St Pierre-et-Miquelon, tiny islands in the North Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland (Pop. 6,008) voted narrowly for Le Pen. She scored 41.5% in France as a whole.
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The population of the French Caribbean is 90% of African origin. Why did they give such overwhelming support to a woman accused in “mainland France” of being the standard-bearer of racial intolerance? The answer: it is complicated.
In part, this was an anti-Macron, anti-Paris and anti-vaccination vote. There were weeks of riots in Guadeloupe, and to a lesser extent in Martinique, last year when the Macron government imposed the same vaccination rules on the vax-resistant Caribbean as in the whole of France.
That, however, is not the full explanation. Le Pen’s campaign, which focused on high prices and low wages rather than race or religion, struck a loud chord in islands where poverty and unemployment are much higher than the French national average. In the first round of the presidential elections, the French Caribbean départements (counties) actually voted heavily for the hard-Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
In Metropolitan France, the Mélenchon vote transferred around 40% to Macron last Sunday and only 15% to Le Pen (the rest abstaining). In the French Antilles (West Indies or Caribbean) the hard-Left vote transferred en bloc to the far-Right. Justin Daniel, politics professor in the Université des Antilles, says Macron became the target of “jumble of discontents” — partly because of his vaccination policy partly just because he represented “Le Pouvoir”.
The high vote for Le Pen reflects a love-hate, dependence-rejection relationship between metropolitan France and all its overseas “departments” and “territories”. Economically, the French Caribbean is dependent on transfers from mainland France and French tourism. Its GDP per head is much higher than most neighbouring, independent island nations such as Jamaica, but one third below that of France as a whole. The wealth in the French Caribbean is also distributed more unevenly than in European France. One third of Guadeloupéens live below the poverty line.
But the pro-Le Pen vote in the Caribbean would likely evaporate if she was ever to become President. In 2017, it was the upstart Macron who racked up 60 to 70% victories in Les Antilles. French west Indians who live in Metropolitan France shake their head at Sundays’ vote “back home” in amusement and exasperation. They point out that they are often rudely treated as “migrants” by the kind of “France First” voters who are attracted to Le Pen.
Some sort of more separate status for the French Caribbean may become necessary all the same. It was striking that even the further-flung parts of France in the Pacific, which do have a little more autonomy, voted heavily for Emmanuel Macron. He won with 61.04% of the vote in Nouvelle-Calédonie, 51.8% in French Polynesia and 67.4% in Wallis-et-Futuna.
And there are independence movements in all the French Caribbean départements. But the islands (and Guyane) are so dependent on France economically that anti-French feeling expresses itself in spasms of discontent such as this, rather than in revolution.