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Non-Sovereign Caribbean Territories and Citizenship (2/4): France

In contrast to Britain, as we saw last week, France has always regarded its Caribbean possessions as inherent parts of France which happen to lie in the Western Hemisphere. For the purposes of nationality law this had the effect that French nationality law was fully in force in the Caribbean as well as in some other French territories. In the words of Emmanuelle Saada, ‘the [French nationality] law of 1889 declared the definition of nationality for some time to come. It was declared applicable to Algeria (excluding natives) and to the colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion, but its extension to other territories remained unresolved for many years’.

France hung on to its colonies, even though they were of little economic value, to retain its role in international politics as well as to preserve some its grandeur. As a result of this perception of the French Republic being a single unit, the decolonisation process as implemented on 27 October 1946 through départementalisation resulted in the full integration of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the French half of Saint Martin (together forming the French Antilles or French West Indies since 1642) into the French Republic on a constitutional par with departments in mainland France.

Until 2003, the overseas territories were collectively referred to as DOM TOM (départements d’outre-mer and territoires d’outre-mer). In 2003, the name DOM TOM was changed into DROM COM (départements et régions d’outre-mer and collectivités d’outre-mer), although it seems that the term DOM TOM also continues to be used in the French-speaking media. In 2007, Saint Barthélemy seceded from Guadeloupe in order to become a separate COM of France. There are almost 800,000 French Caribbean citizens, spread fairly evenly over Guadeloupe and Martinique; the population of Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy (with approximately 40,000 and 10,000 inhabitants respectively) is much smaller.

Départementalisation, which ended the French West Indies’ colonial status, was certainly not brought about unilaterally by France, since Antillean political elites had repeatedly called for complete integration into the French State. Unlike the British Overseas Territories, who can decide themselves on independence or not, there is consensus regarding the fact that political self-determination for the DROM is not an option. The wish for independence is in any case not particularly strong among the majority of the outre-mer population, as their low productive capacity makes them heavily dependent on financial assistance from both France and the European Union. Despite occasional complaints about second class citizenship and ‘colonial’ treatment by France, the advantages of dependency therefore continue to outweigh the alleged drawbacks. It is important from the perspective of citizenship law that all DOM inhabitants are EU citizens enjoying free movement within the EU as well as the right to settle there.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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