Contradictions in the Caribbean: Martinique and the 2002 French National Elections

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Political Snapshot in Overseas France

Once again, Martinique confounds by voting. In 2002, incumbent president Jacques Chirac obtained his highest final result throughout all of France--Metropolitan and overseas--in this departement francais d'Amerique (DFA). Chirac's otherwise overwhelming score for the Republic as a whole--82 percent--was modest compared with the 96 percent he obtained in Martinique.

For sure, there is no surprise that an island populated mainly by the descendants of slaves would so solidly line up to defeat a candidate who, in local eyes, starkly incarnated racism: Jean-Marie le Pen of the National Front (NF). Yet, when examined in relation to other lopsided Martinican scores in recent presidential contests, the outcome is noteworthy for other reasons. Perhaps even more striking is that, in an election that pushed the Martinican populace to the edge of political hysteria, so few islanders even bothered to vote.

This article focuses on the follow-up to the 2002 presidential vote in Martinique: the legislative elections that determined the deputies that this one overseas department (DOM) would senti to the national assembly in Paris. (1) Unlike presidential results, legislative outcomes in Martinique reflect great ideological diversity. They especially demonstrate how divided Martinicans are about the one question most outside observers ever care about, but has increasingly become a non-issue even among their politicians: independence. Above all, Martinique's participation and vote in France's 2002 presidential and legislative elections afford a glimpse into the current political culture of this "most French" of overseas France.

Before turning directly to the 2002 campaign, let us briefly review Martinique's vote in three previous French presidential elections.

Wild Swings in Tropical Climes

As in 2002, in 1981 Martinican voters outdistanced every other department of France by casting their vote in favor of the conservative incumbent. However, in that election their preferred candidate lost. President Valery Giscard d'Estaing ceded the Elysee to Socialist challenger Francois Mitterrand, who nationwide had managed to squeak by with 52 percent of the vote; in Martinique, he barely registered 19 percent. An insidious campaign strategy of the right had convinced Martinicans that a Mitterrand victory would result in their island being "thrown overboard" into the shoals of involuntary independence. Although the respected Martinican poet and politician Aime Cesaire had simultaneously endorsed Mitterrand and called for a moratorium on his party's longstanding demand for autonomy, the overall result for France traumatized many islanders. (2)

Seven years later, reassured that their insular overseas department had indeed remained squarely within the fold of France, Martinique's voters swung completely the other way. In 1988, Martinique bested every other French department in supporting Mitterrand in his bid for a second term. Mitterrand obtained 71 percent of the votes this time, and Martinique was back in its more familiar "legitimist" role of having backed the same candidate as did the majority of the French electorate as a whole. (3) The conservative candidate trounced in Martinique in 1988 was none other than he whom the island would outdo the rest of France in backing in 2002--Jacques Chirac. (4)

In 1995, however, Martinique again rejected Chirac, thereby putting itself for the second time outside of the mainstream of French presidential elections. This was a rare contest, one in which no presidential incumbent was in the running. Although it did hOt again break records for lopsided voting, Martinique's 59 percent vote for Lionel Jospin, Mitterrand's designated heir, was the second best for the Socialist of any French department. (5) Figure 1 plots the extent to which Martinique's electorate is much more united in the presidentielles than France as a whole, whether the island votes for the overall winner (the usual case) or the loser (such as in 1981 and 1995). …