The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why France’s overseas territories are voting for anyone but Macron

A voter prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in Fort-de-France, on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, on June 18. (Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)
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On April 24, the day of the final round of France’s presidential election, many woke up to a chilling development: Majorities in the overseas departments (or territories) of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana — who cast their vote a day early due to time difference — voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen over President Emmanuel Macron.

Though Macron ultimately won the election, Le Pen won 41 percent of the total vote, the far-right’s best-ever performance in a French presidential election. More than 60 percent of voters in each of the three departments, along with majorities in the Indian Ocean departments of Mayotte and Réunion, contributed to that.

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

What explains these seemingly puzzling trends? Part of the story could be distrust in the system: The most popular position overseas 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. Yet since then, he has been a major disappointment to these populations.

France’s overseas territories — formerly colonies — have long faced discriminatory treatment and continue to experience injustices and neglect today. For example, a toxic pesticide that was banned in mainland France in 1990 continued to be permitted in departments for years; an estimated 95 percent of Guadeloupeans and 92 percent of Martiniquans were exposed to it. Would such conditions have been allowed to proliferate in the mainland? Likewise, until 1996, France applied a minimum wage in departments that was lower than in continental France.

Since coming to power, Macron’s government has done little to prioritize the concerns of those in departments. Consider the situation in Guadeloupe. After a fire in 2017, the territory’s university hospital closed its doors for months and subsequently worked under greatly reduced capacity; it still faces staffing and resource issues. Safe access to drinking water — a fundamental human right — has also been a problem in the department for decades and continues to this day thanks to decaying infrastructure.

In French Guiana, months after Macron’s 2017 election, a social movement emerged to protest the vast disparities in public services offered in the territory. The president — who as a candidate incorrectly referred to the South American department as an “island” — responded drily to the social unrest, saying he was “no Santa Claus.”

His government later 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 handling it — only exacerbated distrust and suspicion. After years of contempt and disregard, how could citizens in departments trust the state to suddenly prioritize their health? Restrictive measures were generally announced by prefects — representatives of the French state — rather than local elected officials, adding to the impression that the former colonizer was imposing policies without taking the local context into account.

Then, when unrest broke out against the measures in Martinique and Guadeloupe, the government sent a special police unit to the territories. This felt outrageous to residents, given that public services were still so defective and lasting issues had been ignored for so long.

France’s overseas territories were once known for their strong antipathy toward the far right. While attempting to visit Martinique in 1987, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was prevented from landing by protesters. In 1997, connecting in Martinique en route to Puerto Rico, he was heckled by activists. But the far right does not frighten younger generations as much as their elders. In April, Martiniquan scholar Myriam Moïse argued that Le Pen’s performance in the presidential election was “an insult to our ancestors” who had “fought racism and hate.”

As hard as it is to acknowledge, xenophobia is also on the rise in several of these territories and likely part of the mix that boosted the far right. In French Guiana — whose border with Brazil is the largest between France and another country — the League of Human Rights denounced recent incidents of “xenophobic violence.” Similarly, in Mayotte, an island in the Indian Ocean, militias have been created to harass people who are undocumented from the Comoros. In the presidential election, Le Pen — with her record of Islamophobic rhetoric and positions — led in both rounds in Mayotte, though nearly 95 percent of the local population is Muslim.

The anger against the state in France’s overseas territories is understandable. Still, the rise of the far right in these territories reflects how effective the National Rally has been in reshaping its image. Macron and other politicians in power should not neglect this new threat to the ideals of the French republic — and should act to ensure that citizens living in departments feel valued and heard.