France state

Reviews | Why France’s overseas territories vote for anyone but Macron

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On April 24, the day of the last round of the French presidential election, many woke up to a frightening development: majorities in the overseas departments (or territories) of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana – who voted a day earlier due to the time difference – voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen rather than President Emmanuel Macron.

Although Macron ultimately won the election, Le Pen won 41% of the total vote, the best performance ever by the far right in a French presidential election. More than 60% of voters in each of the three departments, as well as majorities in the Indian Ocean departments of Mayotte and Reunion, contributed.

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

What explains these seemingly puzzling trends? Part of the story could be distrust of the system: the most popular position abroad was abstaining from voting. But, in fact, the results were also a clear rejection of Macron.

In the 2017 presidential election, Macron won the second round in these departments by a significant margin. However, since then, it has been a great disappointment for these populations.

France’s overseas territories – formerly colonies – have long faced discriminatory treatment and today continue to be victims of injustice and neglect. For example, a toxic pesticide banned in mainland France in 1990 remained authorized in the departments for years; it is estimated that 95% of Guadeloupeans and 92% of Martiniquans are exposed to it. Would such conditions have been allowed to proliferate on the continent? Similarly, until 1996, France applied in the departments a minimum wage lower than that of mainland France.

Since coming to power, the Macron government has done little to prioritize departmental concerns. Take the situation in Guadeloupe. After a fire in 2017, the territory’s teaching hospital closed for months and then operated at greatly reduced capacity; it still faces staffing and resource issues. Safe access to drinking water – a basic human right – has also been an issue in the department for decades and continues to this day thanks to decaying infrastructure.

In French Guiana, months after Macron’s election in 2017, a social movement emerged to protest against the great disparities in the public services offered in the territory. The president – who as a candidate wrongly referred to the South American department as an “island” – responded curtly to the social unrest, saying he was “not Santa Claus”.

His government then shut down France Ô, the public channel dedicated to overseas territories, with Macron saying it was “not essential”.

The pandemic – and the French government‘s top-down approach to managing it – has only heightened distrust and suspicion. After years of contempt and indifference, how could the citizens of the departments be able to trust the State to suddenly prioritize their health? Restrictive measures are usually announced by prefects – representatives of the French state – rather than local elected officials, adding to the impression that the former colonizer is imposing policies without taking into account the local context.

Then, when unrest broke out against the measures in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the government sent a special police unit to the territories. This seemed outrageous to residents, given that public services were still so flawed 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 attempting to travel to Martinique in 1987, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was prevented from landing by protesters. In 1997, stopping in Martinique en route to Puerto Rico, he was heckled by militants. But the far right does not frighten the younger generations as much as their elders. In April, Martinican researcher Myriam Moïse claimed that Le Pen’s performance in the presidential election was “an insult to our ancestors” who had “fought racism and hatred”.

Hard as it is to recognise, xenophobia is also on the rise in many of these territories and is likely part of the mix that has spurred the far right. In French Guiana – whose border with Brazil is the largest between France and another country – the Human Rights League has denounced recent incidents of “xenophobic violence”. Similarly, in Mayotte, an island in the Indian Ocean, militias have been created to harass undocumented Comoros immigrants. In the presidential election, Le Pen – with his record of Islamophobic rhetoric and positions – led both rounds in Mayotte, despite nearly 95% of the local population being Muslim.

The anger against the state in the French overseas territories is understandable. However, the rise of the extreme right in these territories reflects the effectiveness of the National Rally in reshaping its image. Macron and other politicians in power must not overlook this new threat to the ideals of the French Republic – and must act to ensure that citizens living in the departments feel valued and heard.