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Who are Marine Le Pen’s supporters in the French Caribbean?

Macron may have triumphed overall, but Le Pen won Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana by a crushing margin – a disturbing turnaround from 2017

Romain Cruse
6 May 2022, 12.01am
Marine Le Pen was beaten in the second round of the French presidential election

Xinhua/Alamy Live News

Marine Le Pen may not have won the French presidency, but she caused a shock in the French Caribbean and Guiana, where the mostly Black electorate voted for her by a wide margin. In the second round run-off on 24 April, the far-Right candidate trounced Emmanuel Macron locally, receiving 70% in Guadeloupe and 61% in both Martinique and French Guiana.

When did this all start? Was it in July 2020, when young people waving red green and black flags – Rouge, Vert, Noir in French, hence the name “RVN” – removed a series of colonial-era monuments? Or was it in 2009, when Martinique and Guadeloupe saw a general strike, in protest at la vie chère and pwofitasyon, the cost of living and exploitation? It was certainly not obvious back then that people would vote en masse for Le Pen. But this time, they did.

Double consciousness

Geographically speaking, Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana lie somewhere between France and the Global South. Their feet are in the Caribbean and South America but their heart is in France. Or if not the heart, then the head: they are departments of France and their inhabitants are French citizens, living in a love-hate relationship with the motherland, which they still call by its colonial name: la Métropole. The slogan of the 2009 protests, péyi-a sé pa ta yo (“our country is not theirs”) cast the relationship as one of ‘us and them’ – much like Bob Marley did when he sang “me nuh know how we and dem ago work this out, but someone will have to pay.”

It’s worth noting that “nationalism” is not a dirty word in the Global South – or, indeed, in most parts of the world – in the way that it is for much of Western Europe. Martinique, for instance, has frequently elected a Martiniquan nationalist leader, Alfred Marie-Jeanne, to high office in the region since the 1970s. Even the leftist party founded by Aimé Césaire in 1958, the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais (PPM), is strongly nationalist.

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However, as good French citizens, the Antillais have been taught from a young age the catechism that French nationalism means Le Pen, and Le Pen means fascism. In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly reached the second round of the presidential election, nearly 97% of the French Caribbean voted for his opponent, Jacques Chirac.

In fact, when Le Pen senior tried to visit Martinique more than a decade earlier, in 1987, thousands of people gathered on the airport runway to prevent his plane from landing. (The plane eventually landed in nearby Guadeloupe, but Le Pen was not allowed to disembark and had to fly back to France.) Marie-Jeanne, Martinique’s own nationalist figurehead, was the politician who rallied the crowd.

‘Nationalism’ is not a dirty word in the Global South

So, has Marine Le Pen managed to reconcile these two different nationalisms – Caribbean and French, White and Black? Even today, the answer is no. She found some sympathy in places where there has been irregular migration from Haiti, Suriname and Brazil; mostly northern Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the border regions of French Guiana. But the reality is simpler still: voters were sending a message not to Le Pen, but Macron. Between 40% and 50% of the electorate didn’t even bother to vote, while most of those who did picked Le Pen as an absolute last resort.

Why so? Because of an explosive mix of rising poverty and inflation – worse than what’s happening in la Métropole, partly due to rising shipping fees – and dissatisfaction with Macron’s neoliberal agenda and his cynical arrogance. Discontent has been sorely evident for the past two years as many people have refused to be vaccinated against COVID, leading to riots in November and December 2021.

Official figures show that while France’s vaccination rate is around 80% overall, it is less than 40% locally. Health workers campaigned against mandatory vaccination, while police were sent to secure hospital entrances, which led to violence.

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The least-worst option?

The protesters wanted to know why the government seemingly cared so much about buying vaccines from Pfizer and so little about chlordecone. The latter, a pesticide produced in the US, was widely used by planters from the 1970s to the 1990s, even after it was known to cause diseases such as cancer and banned elsewhere – including in metropolitan France.

Local activists brought a long-running court case claiming this amounted to “reckless endangerment”. The case was finally dismissed in April, just before the election. In Martinique and Guadeloupe, many people interpreted the judgement as punishment for their rejection of vaccines – another factor that may have informed their voting choices.

In one sense, this year’s presidential election fits an established pattern. Voters in the French Caribbean and Guiana have consistently voted for the Left in the first round, which they did again this year with Jean-Luc Mélenchon. They have then voted tactically in the second round, for the least-worst option. In 2017, it was obvious to most people that this meant voting to keep Le Pen out. After five years of Macron, however, the choice was less clear – and for those who did vote, the logic led them to the opposite conclusion.

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