Overseas France, suffering France

The twelve overseas entities, with different internal and European statuses, provide France with the second largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world after the US and allow it to be present in all the major oceans.

Overseas France, suffering France

The twelve overseas entities, with different internal and European statuses, provide France with the second largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world after the US and allow it to be present in all the major oceans.

Of the immense French colonial empire, which covered 12 million square kilometers on the eve of the Second World War, only one hundredth part remains, that is, 120,000 square kilometers. Colonization is at the base of overseas France, and the way in which the colonial empire was exploited for the benefit of the mother country and its settlers    continues to have important human and economic consequences. The colonial heritage varies from place to place, but everywhere it is marked by the ambiguity of a decolonization without independence, combined with economic subjection and welfare, all of which is reflected in the toponym overseas, an appellation given by a dominant center to some dominated peripheries.

Overseas France is today populated by 2.8 million inhabitants, that is, the equivalent of Galicia. It is made up of twelve entities with different internal and European statuses.

The best known are the so-called four former colonies, because France took possession of them in the 17th century; they became overseas departments (DOM, for its acronym in French) in 1946 and overseas regions (ROM) in 1982. Like the Canary Islands, they are outermost regions (RUP) integrated into the community space and beneficiaries of the funds structural. The three Sugar Islands (Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion), as well as French Guiana, have a common history marked by slavery until its abolition in 1848 and assimilation with departmentalization in 1946. Those Creole societies have a total of 1, 9 million inhabitants, that is, two thirds of the French overseas population. Guayana is the largest entity, with an area equivalent to that of Andalusia.

This group, whose status has recently diverged, is completed by a series of diverse collectivities, among which are Mayotte, which became a DOM in 2011, and other overseas collectivities (COM) associated only with the European Union under the form of overseas countries and territories (OCTs), such as New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia or Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The uninhabited islands or without permanent population, such as the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF) or Clipperton, complete this heterogeneous and dispersed group that provides France with the second largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world (10 million square kilometers). , behind the United States, but ahead of Australia and Russia. The overseas territories allow France to be present in all the great oceans. Anecdotally, they make France the country with the most legal hours in the world (13 in winter and 14 in boreal summer).

These territories have an increasingly contrasted demographic dynamics. On the one hand, in some, such as Martinique and Guadeloupe (the French Antilles together with Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy), the population is declining due to accelerated aging, a fertility rate lower than that of the metropolis, and a negative migratory balance. In contrast, French Guiana and Mayotte are experiencing a population explosion due to uncontrolled illegal immigration. The Guyanese population has multiplied tenfold in about sixty years, and that of Mayotte twelvefold. In the French Antilles classrooms are closed, while in Mayotte children attend school in the morning or in the afternoon due to lack of buildings.

The consequences of colonization and slavery are very much in force, with spectacular inequalities unparalleled in the metropolis. Skin color remains a determining factor in understanding such a situation. The overseas population is more vulnerable than the metropolitan population, as it suffers from more frequent health problems (diabetes, obesity, hypertension, drug and alcohol addiction, etc.) and a higher degree of violence (road insecurity, robbery, murder, rape, incest, etc.) . The condition of women is worse than in the metropolis; among other things, single parenthood has become a massive social phenomenon in the Antilles (41% in Martinique). Among the economic and social scourges, one of the main ones is unemployment, with rates that double or triple the metropolitan ones in the Antilles or Réunion. GDP per capita is lower by more than a third. For example, in 2021, the wealth created per capita was 37% lower in Réunion than in the metropolis. More than a third of Reunionese are below the metropolitan poverty line, compared to 14% in mainland France. In the absence of a redistributive policy through various social benefits (family benefits, housing benefits, subsidies for people in need, etc.), more than half of the Reunionese would be below that threshold. Income inequalities, measured according to the Gini index, are similar to those of the United States or Latin America, and much higher than in the metropolis.

Emigration to the metropolis has been a response to such precariousness. Between 1963 and the early 1980s, it was organized by the State in response to existing underemployment in the Antilles and Réunion. The metropolis experienced very strong economic growth and lacked manpower in positions beyond the reach of foreigners, such as some low-skilled public jobs offered by the Post Office or the administration of Paris hospitals. Together with this managed emigration, autonomous emigration developed. This phenomenon gave rise to a large Domian community (from the DOM regions) in metropolitan France, in contrast to a smaller presence in the rest of overseas France. After a clear decline during the 1990s, emigration resumed and diversified, affecting the whole of overseas France. At present, the number of people born overseas and of children with at least one natural parent from one of those territories is estimated at one million. The visibility of these communities is high in sport. Thus, in the French soccer team that won the 1998 World Cup there were three West Indians (Thuram, Henry and Diomède), one Guyanese (Lama) and one New Caledonian (Karembeu). The army is today a solution for many groceries. They constitute between 8% and 10% of the recruits, even though the overseas territories only represent 4% of the French population. The overrepresentation of overseas French is even greater in the prison administration, since they make up between a quarter and a third of those studying to become prison officers.

These departures for the metropolis are indicative of the evils that afflict all overseas economies: chronic unemployment, low competitiveness, low productivity, high cost of living, lack of competition in the import and distribution sector, brain drain, large wage inequalities, etc. They are assisted, isolated, protected and undertaxed economies. The trade balance is very deteriorated, with trade dominated by the metropolis. Prosperity is false, since it depends above all on huge public transfers from the State and, to a lesser extent, from the European Union, in the form of various aids, social benefits or artificially high salaries. The overpayment of civil servants is one of the keys to understanding the economic and social situation. It is a legacy of the colonial period, when the great isolation and difficult living conditions imposed a salary supplement to attract officials and metropolitan military. Later, these salary supplements began to apply to all military or civil servants, and were extended to the local public administration and to certain private sectors, such as banking and insurance. They range from 40% in the Antilles to more than 100% in French Polynesia, to which bonuses and lower direct taxation are added. These differences oppose, on the one hand, well-paid employees in the protected sector and, on the other, those who are unemployed or in underpaid jobs. For the latter, the cost of living is high, since such a device generates a strong inflationary effect. The issue of the cost of living is explosive, as shown by the general strikes, blockades, riots, mass demonstrations and strong protests in French Polynesia in 1987, in Réunion in 1991, 2008 and 2012, in the Antilles in 2009, in French Guiana in 2017 and in Mayotte in 2018.

The cost of living is also related to the lack of competition and regulations on imports, among which is the insular tax regime in the overseas departments, a tax designed to protect local production. Imports are heavily regulated by old, sometimes obsolete and anti-competitive health regulations. The magnitude of the profit margins is explained by the oligopolistic, or even monopolistic, structure of the markets, in which a very small number of companies have a monopoly on the supply of a good or service. In the Antilles, the Bekés, the white population descended from the first slave settlers, represent less than 1% of the population, but they dominate economically because they own half of the agricultural land, a good part of the import-distribution sector ( car dealerships, hypermarkets, etc.) and the agri-food sectors.

The State continues to inject more and more money to limit social tensions and carry out "recovery policies" without questioning that economic model in which the white elite has preferred to transfer the benefits of the land to import-export trade instead of towards tourism. Exposed to international competition, this tourism sector is the main victim of such a transfer economy. Not being competitive, it does not stand up to comparison with neighboring destinations: aging hotels, overpriced excursions or restaurants, limited and expensive shopping, little nightlife, a welcome that needs to be improved... In 2019, overseas France received only 2 .5 million tourists, of which more than half traveled to the Antilles. Most of the tourists who visit the overseas territories come from the metropolis. Cruise activity is very limited.

Although there can only be undeniable progress in many areas, with populations that are better educated, better cared for or more qualified, it is unfortunate that economic or social organizations forged during the colonization era are maintained, such as export-oriented agriculture in the overseas departments or a school system too closely modeled on that of the mother country in which the mother tongues of the local populations are largely neglected. Not having made any reflection on the future of overseas France, the State has also not undertaken any in-depth reform since 1946. It demonstrated its improvisation in 2011 with the departmentalization of Mayotte, a poorly prepared and poorly directed conversion with very poorly controlled economic consequences. . The 2003 constitutional review allows each overseas entity to choose its statute; however, the inhabitants of Martinique and Guiana rejected the increase in autonomy in 2010, fearing that they would lose the social gains of departmentalization. This example shows the ambiguity of the relationship between overseas populations and the French State, which is both denigrated and always invoked as a resource; especially in Martinique and Guadeloupe, where the violent protest movement against vaccination and the health passport, in November and December 2021, revealed a collective identity built in opposition to the metropolis. The state's failure in the matter of drinking water supply, with an infrastructure that is in very poor condition, and the sanitary scandal of chlordecone (a phytosanitary product used in banana plantations and that has contaminated the vast majority of the population thanks to to successive exemptions despite long being banned in the United States and mainland France) have only served to intensify the wounds of colonization and slavery. The much more accepted assimilation on Réunion Island illustrates that each overseas society is specific.

New Caledonia, with an unparalleled, exceptional and transitory status, is the only overseas territory launched into a dynamic of self-determination since the insurrectionary period of the 1980s, with a desire by the vast majority of the indigenous Kanak people to achieve independence. Following the Matignon (1988) and Numea (1998) Agreements, the State committed itself to economic development and the rebalancing of territories and powers between the different communities by organizing a self-determination plebiscite in 1998, postponed for twenty years.

Like French Polynesia, New Caledonia enjoys a large degree of autonomy with significant transfers of powers, and is also endowed with its own legislative power. New Caledonian citizenship offers priority in recruitment and access to a 'special electorate body' in provincial elections. Such provisions can only be transitory from the point of view of the French Constitution and European conventions.

Three self-determination referendums have been held in 2018, 2020 and 2021. The first two, with a very high participation of a specific and restricted electoral body, rejected independence by 56.7% and 53.3% respectively. The third, organized on December 12, 2021, was boycotted by the independentistas; mainly due to the covid pandemic, very deadly in New Caledonia in September-October 2021. He did not win by 96.5%, but with an abstention of 56.5%. Although valid in legal terms, this latest referendum is not valid in political terms.

New Caledonia is once again at an impasse after more than thirty years of a political process that has failed to lessen the division between pro-independence and non-pro-independence supporters. The instrumentalization of the third referendum in the debate over China's growing influence in the Pacific and its appetite for New Caledonia's nickel shows that strategic considerations continue to weigh on the relationship between the metropolis and its overseas territories.

Jean Christophe Gay. Blue Coast University. Member of the scientific council of the Overseas chair of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).