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French Guiana, Martinique vote on greater autonomy

Voting has begun in French Guiana and in the Caribbean island of Martinique in a referendum to determine whether the two French departments should have a greater say in how they run their own affairs.


AFP - Voting began Sunday in French Guiana and on the Caribbean island of Martinique in a referendum on whether the overseas departments should have more autonomy from Paris.

The vote comes a year after French overseas departments in the Caribbean as well as the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion were convulsed by strikes and rioting over low wages and high prices.

Voters in Guiana and Martinique will not be able to plump for independence from Paris but can vote to have more say in how they run their own affairs and how they spend government money.

An opinion poll published Thursday in Martinique said 59 percent of voters on the island would say no to more autonomy.

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the vote in June when he travelled to Martinique as part of a drive to heal ties with overseas departments where a general strike degenerated into weeks of rioting at the start of 2009.

Voters in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe will not be taking part in the consultation as their local leaders decided that the tense social climate was not conducive to holding a referendum.

Martinique, which has around 400,000 residents, and Guiana, a vast territory on the South American continent with some 200,000 residents, will be asked to approve or reject a change in status for their departments.

The wording of the question is technical but in essence it asks voters if they want to change the status to make it more like that governing more autonomous French territories such as New Caledonia in the Pacific.

If a majority say yes then a law will be drawn up -- and later voted upon -- to decide how responsibilities are divided up between local authorities and Paris.

Sixty years after being granted the status of department -- which makes them legally as French as Normandy or Provence -- the tropical territories face recurrent social problems despite massive financial support from the state.

Martinique, a major rum and banana producer and a tourist destination for mainland French seeking winter sunshine, has an unemployment rate topping 20 percent, more than twice that of metropolitan France.

Guiana, perhaps best known as the launch site for Europe's Ariane space rockets, faces similarly high joblessness.

Wages in both departments are significantly lower than on the French mainland.

An opinion poll published Thursday in Martinique said 59 percent of voters on the island would say no.

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